Pitchers Who Threw No-Hitters Not Named Koufax Or Ryan
This article was written by Steven Schmitt
Early in 1966, when it was still unclear whether the Braves would take root in Atlanta or return to Milwaukee because of a pending court ruling, Ken Johnson was not worried. “If we have to go back to Milwaukee, it will be all right with me,” Johnson said. “I liked it there. I like anyplace in the big leagues where I’m pitching.”
Born on June 16, 1933, Kenneth Travis Johnson grew up in West Palm Beach, Florida, the son of Ernest and Margie Johnson. His father was a bank teller. Johnson’s brother, Ernest Jr., also called “Buddy,” worked for the Pratt & Whitney aircraft plant before retirement. A sister, Shirley, died of breast cancer at age 45. Johnson was actually born left-handed but his father, out of habit, put Ken’s baseball glove on his left hand and taught him to throw right-handed. Johnson eats and writes as a lefty but pitched professional baseball right-handed for 19 seasons. He played baseball at Palm Beach High School, where the coaches said, “If you’re a serious baseball player, don’t play any other sport.” Like many high-school players, Johnson played American Legion baseball in the summer. At age 18, he was a professional. At 32 he was a 16-game winner in the major leagues.
Johnson took a long road to the major leagues. In 1952 he reported to spring training in his hometown of West Palm Beach, Florida (where he had been a scoreboard boy), as an 18-year-old pitching prospect for the Philadelphia Athletics. He won 14 games for the Class A Savannah (Georgia) Indians of the South Atlantic League. Before joining the Army, Johnson pitched an 18-0 shutout against Charleston. Back from the service in 1956, Johnson won 12 games for the Columbia (South Carolina) Gems, also of the South Atlantic League. Johnson started 30 games for the Little Rock Travelers of the Double-A Southern Association in 1957 and had 30 starts and 12 relief outings for the Buffalo Bisons of the Triple-A International League in 1958 before making his major-league debut for the Kansas City Athletics on September 13. Johnson gave up a second-inning grand slam to Washington Senators catcher Clint Courtney in a relief role. He made one more relief appearance against the Chicago White Sox and returned to the minors in 1959.
Johnson won 16 games for the Portland Beavers of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League with five shutouts and a 2.82 ERA. Called up late in the season, he lost his first major-league decision to Detroit’s Jim Bunning at Briggs Stadium on September 22. Johnson lasted four innings and gave up a three-run home run to Harvey Kuenn. Four days later Johnson earned his first win in a start at Cleveland. Used mostly as a reliever in 1960, Johnson won his fifth game when the A’s were 40 games under .500 and hurting at the gate, too.
By 1961, the Athletics had given up on Johnson, who had learned to throw a knuckleball pitching winter ball in Puerto Rico. When Dick Schofield homered off Johnson on a knuckler in spring training, manager Joe Gordon told him to stop throwing it. By May 6, Johnson was 0-4 with a 10.61 ERA and the Athletics sold him to the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League, where he posted a 5-5 mark. In what Johnson later called the “biggest break of my career,” he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds on July 21 for pitcher Orlando Pena and cash. Johnson joined the Reds immediately and helped them win the National League pennant with a 6-2 record and 3.25 ERA in 83 innings, three complete games in 11 starts, and one save. Johnson won his first two starts, beat Mike McCormick, Bob Gibson, and Don Drysdale in August, and shut out the Phillies on September 4. The Reds won 14 of 22 games at the end of the regular season to win the pennant by four games over the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the World Series, which the Reds lost to the Yankees in five games, Johnson retired both batters he faced in former Kansas City teammate Bud Daley’s Series-clinching victory for New York. (Roger Maris and Hector Lopez had played with Johnson, too.) Johnson looked forward to a full season with the National League champions in 1962.
Instead, the Houston Colt .45s selected him 29th in the National League expansion draft. The move reunited Johnson with Harry Craft, the Colt .45s’ inaugural manager and Johnson’s first skipper in Kansas City. Johnson took his new situation in stride, saying he would have had a tough time making the Reds’ staff with prospects Ken Hunt and Jim Maloney joining an experienced group of starters. Johnson started throwing his knuckleball again, saying it made his other pitches more effective. Once, St. Louis third baseman Ken Boyer asked Johnson why he didn’t throw his knuckler anymore. “The next time I faced him, I struck him out with the knuckler,” Johnson said. Pitching for San Juan in the Puerto Rican League, Johnson fanned Giants slugger Orlando Cepeda twice on knuckleballs, pitched two 1-0 games and had a 4-2 record.
At the Colt .45s’ spring-training camp at Apache Junction, Arizona, Johnson won two starts against the Los Angeles Angels, as Houston won the Cactus League. Craft named Johnson his second starter. In his first four starts, Johnson allowed nine earned runs in 29 innings but lost each game. His record was 0-5 when he won his first game on May 18 with a 10th-inning single after allowing a Willie McCovey tape-measure homer in the bottom of the ninth that tied the score, 2-2. Five days later Johnson became the first pitcher to beat Bob Purkey, who would go 23-5 for Cincinnati in 1962, with a 2-0 shutout. On June 3 Pittsburgh’s Bob Skinner drove a Johnson delivery onto the right-field roof of Forbes Field, becoming only the fifth player to reach such heights, but Johnson had a respectable 4-7 record and 3.00 ERA through June 17.
Johnson objected to sportswriters calling him a hard-luck pitcher: “If people call me that long enough, that’s what I’ll become.” But he had his share of hard luck during the season. On September 12 Johnson stopped Maury Wills’ 19-game hitting streak but lost his 15th game (against six wins), 1-0, at Colt Stadium on Frank Howard’s fifth-inning home run. Until then, Johnson had not allowed a baserunner. There were some positive highlights as well that season. On August 14 against St. Louis, Johnson struck out 12 Cardinals batters, tying Turk Farrell for the club’s single-game strikeout record. On September 18 Johnson’s three sacrifice bunts along with an RBI helped beat Casey Stengel’s “Amazin’ Mets” for his seventh victory. Johnson (7-16) had a respectable 3.84 ERA and led the National League in strikeout/walk ratio with 178 strikeouts and 46 walks in 197 innings for an eighth-place team. The Colt .45s became the second franchise in major-league history with a pitching staff that recorded 1,000 strikeouts, and the club awarded each pitcher, including Johnson, a 14-karat-gold tie clasp with the engraving “1,000 Ks” at a pregame ceremony in August 1963.
Johnson won 11 and lost 17 with a 2.65 ERA in 1963 for a ninth-place club that never reached the .500 mark. On April 17 he started against the San Francisco Giants and pitched 12 innings for a 2-1 victory as the .45s scored the deciding run in the top of the 13th. On April 27 Johnson lost 1-0 to the Cincinnati Reds when Frank Robinson was awarded first base when rookie catcher John Bateman was called for interference after bumping into Robinson at the plate, and then scored on Johnny Edwards’s single. On July 15 at the Polo Grounds, the Mets’ Carlton Willey hit a grand slam off Johnson, becoming the first Mets pitcher ever to hit a bases-loaded homer. After a 3-2 complete-game loss to Bob Gibson and the Cardinals on August 14, and a 1-0 loss to Cincinnati’s Joe Nuxhall on August 20, Johnson had a 6-17 record but won his last five decisions to end the season. On Opening Day 1964 in Cincinnati, Johnson became the first pitcher to put Houston in first place. He beat the Reds’ Jim Maloney, 6-3, but it was a solemn occasion. Houston players wore black armbands in memory of Johnson’s best friend and road roommate, pitcher Jim Umbricht, who had died of cancer five days earlier at the age of 33. Johnson dedicated the game to Umbricht. “I thought about him before the game,” Johnson said. “All the fellows did.” In his next start, Johnson beat another ace, Milwaukee’s Tony Cloninger, one of four different Braves starters Johnson defeated that season.
Johnson’s third start of 1964 was normally good enough to beat anyone. On April 23 he no-hit the Reds but lost, 1-0, when second baseman Nellie Fox’s ninth-inning error scored Pete Rose, who had tried to bunt to break up the no-hitter and reached on Johnson’s own throwing error. Johnson even suffered a bruised shin when Chico Ruiz hit a line drive to the mound in the ninth inning that turned into an out. “It’s amazing,” he said the next day, “how many people come up to me and start their sentences off the same way: ‘Congratulations, Ken. That was sure a lousy break.’ See what I mean? They give me congratulations and condolences at the same time. They don’t know whether to feel glad or sad for me.” The 10th no-hit loss in major-league history got Johnson a guest appearance on the popular CBS I’ve Got a Secret game show four nights later. (Baseball buff Henry Morgan guessed Johnson’s secret, that he had pitched a no-hitter and lost.)
Johnson’s lack of hitting support even drew the interest of a Mexican voodoo practitioner who had called the Colt .45s’ Spanish-language radio announcer, Rene Cardenas, claiming that he could cast a good-luck spell on Johnson if he could obtain one of Johnson’s old baseball gloves.
During the second game of a twi-night doubleheader on May 23, Johnson fired a five-hit, 4-0 shutout against the Mets in a game that did not start until 11P.M. due to several rain delays.
“We could have had him but I thought he was a seven-inning pitcher and now I see I’m right,” said Casey Stengel. “After seven innings, he gives up a hit.” Johnson had lost his next two starts after the April 23 no-hitter and later lost two 1-0 games and another, 2-1. On July 18 he finally won a close one with some medical help. During a start at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, Johnson complained, “Every time the wind blows out on the mound, it feels like somebody is holding an ice cube against my back.” Trainer Jim Ewell applied a thick coating of oil to Johnson’s back between the fifth and sixth innings and Johnson won, 2-1. In 11 of his 16 losses in 1964, Houston was either shut out or managed just a single tally.
The Braves must have remembered what Johnson had done against them when they traded outfielder Lee Maye for him and first baseman-outfielder Jim Beauchamp on May 23, 1965. The Colt .45s had become the Astros and were playing in the Harris County Domed Stadium, better known as the Houston Astrodome. Johnson had a 3-2 record for the Astros when he left for Milwaukee and had his first winning season for a lame-duck team that would move to Atlanta in 1966. Milwaukee had winning records at home and on the road, led the loop in home runs, and contended until early September, but the impending move kept fans away. The Braves drew just over 555,000 fans, last in the league. Johnson won 13 and lost 8 as the Braves’ third starting pitcher and finished 16-10 overall. He beat the powerful Cincinnati Reds three times and the Pittsburgh Pirates twice, but lost twice to the Phillies’ Ray Culp and twice to the eighth-place Cubs.Johnson’s wife, Lynn, recalled a family atmosphere in Milwaukee where wives got together for coffee and went to the games. The move to Atlanta was heavy on the minds of Milwaukee residents. “The Braves were leaving and the people there were upset about it,” Lynn Johnson said. “They didn’t do a lot of booing.”
Relocating to Atlanta meant the Johnsons would live closer to family. Mrs. Johnson’s parents lived in Augusta, Georgia. “The wives would get apartments in the same complex,” she added. “When the players went on the road, the wives would plan things to do together.”
On April 8, 1966, Johnson pitched the opening game of a three-game preseason exhibition series in Atlanta Stadium against the Yankees. In the second regular-season game, Johnson lasted just three innings and lost, 6-0, to the Pirates on Willie Stargell’s two-run homer and RBI single. Three days later, Johnson was among 11 Braves fined for fraternizing with opposing players before a game with the Mets. On May 18 Johnson stopped Vernon Law’s personal 10-game winning streak that stretched over two seasons. Johnson was the last to beat Law, on July 15, 1965.
For the next month, Johnson struggled with tendinitis in his right shoulder but returned to beat the Pirates on June 10. Two weeks later, he ended the Braves’ five-game losing streak, beating the Dodgers, 5-4, in the day half of a day-night twin bill at Dodger Stadium that drew 79,289 paid customers. Johnson went the distance, hit a home run, and had a 6-5 record. Manager Bobby Bragan said, “When Johnson goes out there, you know you’re going to be in the game.” Johnson replied, “Plenty of guys have more ability than I do. But I’ve worked hard to get where I am. I’ve put in plenty of long hours.”
In 1967 the Braves embraced the knuckleball, moving Phil Niekro into a starting role with Johnson and reacquiring catcher Bob Uecker to catch the dazzling deliveries. Niekro led the NL in earned-run average and Johnson won 13 games. The “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968 was not a good one for Johnson, who dropped to 5-8 on a .500 team on which he was reunited with former Houston manager Lum Harris. On May 10 Johnson was the winning pitcher and tossed a complete game in a 2-1 Braves victory in Atlanta over Los Angeles Dodgers’ ace Don Drysdale, who proceeded to pitch a then-record 58⅔ scoreless innings and six shutouts over his next seven starts. The Braves won the NL West Division and faced the Eastern Division champion New York Mets in the 1969 NLCS, but Johnson was not there. The Braves sold him to the Yankees on June 10, but he was with them only two months before the Cubs bought him on August 11 as extra bullpen help for their NL East Division championship drive. Johnson had a 1-2 record in nine games including eight relief appearances. He was on the mound on September 7 when Don Kessinger’s error and Richie Hebner’s single produced two unearned runs in the 11th inning as the Cubs lost in extra innings to the Pirates at Wrigley Field before going on the road and free-falling out of first place. “It was fun until they started losing,” Lynn Johnson remembered. Released by the Cubs in April 1970, Johnson pitched briefly for the Montreal Expos, his second expansion team, and pitched his last game on April 18, 1970.
After his baseball career ended, Johnson returned to West Palm Beach and supervised the Work Ship program at Palm Beach Atlantic College. He found work sites for students to get real-world experience for a certain number of hours that the college required for graduation. Some of the assignments involved assisting those with disabilities, Lynn Johnson said. After that, Johnson coached baseball at Louisiana College in Pineville, where his son, Kenneth Travis Johnson Jr., got a baseball scholarship and later became a family practice physician. Another son, Russell “Rusty” Johnson, became a certified public accountant, while daughter Janet taught kindergarten in Alexandria, just across the Red River from Pineville, where the Johnsons lived in 2014. A grandson, Jason Johnson, a pediatric cardiologist in Memphis, lost an 11-month-old son to a severe heart condition. All three graduated from Louisiana Baptist College, where Ken had been assistant baseball coach for 10 years before retiring. “We babysat grandchildren so that the wives could work,” Lynn Johnson said.
On November 21, 2015, Johnson passed away at the age of 82 at his home in Pineville, Louisiana. His son, Kenneth, Jr., said that his father had been bedridden with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and that he died after contracting a kidney infection. Most of Johnson’s baseball experiences in recent years remained lost or clouded in his mind and he was unable to share them for purposes of this article because of Alzheimer’s disease, which Lynn said he inherited from his father. In a brief conversation in the summer of 2014, Johnson did express appreciation to the author that an article would be published on his career, also intimating that Rose may have beaten out the play that was called an error.
Sadly, the New York Times online obituary is titled, “Ken Johnson, Only Loser of 9-Inning No-Hitter, Dies at 82.” His accomplishments thus deserve more attention, especially considering a professional baseball career that began at age 18, included 13 big-league seasons, and finally ended in 1970. How many ballplayers can say they started out with Connie Mack, pitched for two expansion teams and two jilted franchises, appeared in a World Series, threw a no-hitter, were part of a controversial franchise shift and a memorable collapse – and still coached his son in baseball and was able to enjoy six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren? The grand-kids got a big charge out of reading about Grandpa on the Internet, sitting on his lap as they did it. That is another memory Johnson shared and was able to take with him.
This article was written by C. Paul Rogers III
Bob Feller was a 35-year-old veteran of 15 major-league seasons in 1954 when the Cleveland Indians won 111 games and swept to the American League pennant by eight games over the New York Yankees. His fastball had lost a good deal of its luster and manager Al Lopez had reportedly wanted to release him during spring training. Lopez, however, was overruled by general manager Hank Greenberg, who was worried about fan reaction, particularly since Feller had pitched pretty well in 1953, winning 10 while losing seven.
Still, Lopez was reluctant to rely on Feller and sat him on the bench until the third week of the season, when he started Feller in the first game of a doubleheader against the Washington Senators. Feller was gone by the fifth inning but escaped with a no-decision. His next opportunity was not until two weeks later, and this time he made it only until the third inning, again ending with a no-decision as the Indians won. Fortunately, Lopez gave him another chance a week later. This time Feller showed he had something left in the tank, pitching a complete-game 14-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles for the 250th win of his storied career.
After a complete-game loss to the White Sox, Feller got on to a roll, winning six consecutive starts to stand at 7-1 on July 21. Lopez was starting him every six days to great effect. In those six wins he allowed a grand total of only seven runs. His fastball revived to the extent that, if not back to 1940s standards, it was above average. He had developed a sinker to go with his curveball and slider, and sometimes even broke out a knuckleball. For the season, Feller finished with 13 victories against just three losses. He threw nine complete games in 19 starts and allowed only 127 hits in his 140 innings of work.
Feller was naturally quite anxious to win his first World Series game, accurately thinking the 1954 World Series would be his last chance. Lopez originally penciled Feller to start Game Three against the New York Giants, the first game to be played in Cleveland. When the Indians lost the first two games in the Polo Grounds, however, Lopez opted to start Mike Garcia, who had won 19 games and had the lowest earned-run average in the American League, in Game Three. Feller was hopeful of starting Game Four, but when Cleveland lost Game Three to go down three games to zero, Lopez selected 23-game-winner Bob Lemon to go on short rest. Unhappily for the Tribe, that didn’t work either as the Giants won to sweep the Series.
Feller continued to be perplexed as to why Lopez did not use him at all in the Series, noting that Lopez used seven pitchers, including all the principal starters and relievers but him. In his second memoir, he pointed out that those seven gave up 21 runs in four games. His real last chance for a World Series victory, he lamented, had been in 1948, the last time the Indians had been in the Series. It was indeed, for the Indians would finish second in both 1955 and 1956, the last two years of Feller’s career.
Robert William Andrew Feller was born on November 3, 1918, in Van Meter, Iowa, the first of two children to the former Lena Forrett, a schoolteacher and registered nurse, and William Feller, a farmer. The boy was perhaps the first to be raised by his father to be a major-league star. Before little Bobby could walk, his father would roll a ball to him and use a pillow to catch the return tosses. From the age of 4 on, playing catch with his father was a daily routine. By the time he was 9, Bobby could throw a baseball more than 270 feet. Although he was an excellent hitter and fielder, his father saw his promise as a pitcher and set up arc lights in the barn so that the two could play catch there during cold winter evenings.
During the summer of 1930, when Bobby was 11, the Van Meter High School team played several games against the elementary school team. Since Feller could throw harder than anyone else, he pitched and more than held his own against the older boys. By the fall of 1931, Bill Feller and son took the extraordinary step of building a ballpark on the farm to give local players a place to play and to better showcase young Bobby’s talent. Soon the field, which they called Oak View Park, was hosting games, charging 25 cents admission, and sometimes drawing 1,000 fans.
Initially, Bobby played mostly shortstop for the Oak View team, batting .321 in the summer of 1933. In 1934, when he was 15, however, he began having exceptional success on the mound, striking out 35 batters in his first 18 innings as a starter for Oak View. He was soon pitching for the American Legion team in nearby Adel as well, with similar results. His batterymate there was often Nile Kinnick, who later won the Heisman Trophy at the University of Iowa before being killed in World War II.
The following summer, 1935, after reportedly throwing five no-hitters for Van Meter High, the 16-year-old Feller graduated to the semipro Farmers Union team in Des Moines, where the competition was tougher and scouts more plentiful. His meteoric rise continued. According to statistics kept by his father, Bob struck out 361 hitters in 157 innings that summer, allowing only 42 hits and compiling an earned-run average of under 1.00.
In early September Farmers Union traveled to Dayton, Ohio, for the national amateur baseball tournament. Before at least eight scouts, Feller pitched the opening game against Battle Creek, Michigan. He lost, 1-0, but allowed just two hits while striking out 18 batters. Suddenly Feller was besieged with offers that included sizeable bonuses. He couldn’t accept, however, for the fact was that he had secretly signed a contract with Cy Slapnicka of the Cleveland Indians earlier in July. A Des Moines semipro umpire had tipped the Indians about Feller and Slapnicka was dispatched to check out the young phenom. He was impressed and on July 21 Feller (and his dad since Bobby was 16) signed for a bonus of one dollar and an autographed Indians baseball.
Feller was to report the following spring to the Fargo-Moorhead Twins of the low-rung Class-D Northern League. While in Van Meter that winter for his junior year of high school, however, he somehow developed a sore arm. The Indians transferred Feller’s contract to the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern League, where he was placed on the “voluntarily retired” list while he finished his spring semester of school. After the school year, Slapnicka, whom the Indians had promoted to the equivalent of general manager, had Feller take the train to Cleveland, ostensibly to work in concessions but in reality so that the Indians could monitor the health of his arm.
After a couple of weeks, Slapnicka arranged for Feller to start two games for the Rosenblums, a fast Cleveland semipro team sponsored by a clothing store. In the second game he struck out 16 while allowing only four hits. Then on July 6, Feller made his professional debut, entering an Indians-St. Louis Cardinals exhibition game in the fourth inning. His first pitch was a fastball strike to Bruce Ogrodowski, a rookie catcher. Ogrodowski bunted the second pitch and was thrown out by third baseman Sammy Hale. The second hitter was Leo Durocher, the Cardinals’ shortstop, who attempted to intimidate Feller, yelling, “Keep the ball in the park, busher.” Feller did, striking Durocher out swinging on three fastballs. The third hitter, reserve infielder Arthur Garibaldi, did the same.
In his three innings of work, Feller gave up an unearned run and struck out eight batters, including Rip Collins, Pepper Martin, and Durocher twice. On his second trip to the plate, Durocher told the umpire, “I feel like a clay pigeon in a shooting gallery.” Afterward, a photographer asked Cardinal ace Dizzy Dean it he would pose for a picture with the kid pitcher. Diz responded, “If it’s all right with him, it’s all right with me. After what he did today, he’s the guy to say.”
Feller was still technically on the Rosenblums roster and started one more game for them, losing 3-2 while striking out 15. Finally, on July 14, the Indians officially put him on the big-league roster, sending him to Philadelphia to join the club there. The 17-year-old’s first official major-league appearance came a few days later, on July 19 in the eighth inning of a game against the Washington Senators in Griffith Stadium that the Indians were losing 9-2. Feller plunked the first batter, Red Kress, in the ribs with a wild curveball. Then, throwing only fastballs, Feller retired the side around two walks on a strikeout and two popups to end his one inning of work. His second appearance was six days later, on July 24 in Cleveland. With the Tribe ahead of the Philadelphia Athletics 15-2, manager Steve O’Neill brought the 17-year-old into the game in the eighth inning. In two innings, he gave up three hits and one run while striking out two. He got mop-up duty again two days later in the ninth inning of a 13-0 loss, allowing three hits, a walk, and two runs.
O’Neill continued to use Feller sporadically in relief before giving him his first start, against the seventh-place St. Louis Browns on August 23 in Cleveland. The fireballer began by striking out Lyn Lary on three pitches, giving up a single to Harlond Clift, and then striking out the number three and four hitters, Moose Solters and Beau Bell. Pitching in 90-degree heat, Feller continued to be overpowering and struck out a total of 15 hitters in a complete-game 4-1 victory, one shy of Rube Waddell’s American League record. He gave up six hits.
O’Neill knew he had something special on his hands and resolved to start Feller about once a week for the balance of the season. Bob had control problems during his next two starts, losing both and failing to get out of the first inning against the Yankees on September 3. He then defeated the Browns again on September 7, striking out 10 in a complete-game seven-hitter. On the 13th he defeated the Athletics 5 -2 on two hits, but walked nine and allowed seven stolen bases. He was virtually unhittable that afternoon, striking out 17 batters to set the American League record and tying Dizzy Dean’s major-league record.
Young Feller won two of his last three starts as the 1936 season wound down, with the Indians settling in fifth place with an 80-74 record. For his rookie year, the teenager threw 62 innings in 14 appearances, including eight starts. He posted a 5-3 record, allowing 52 hits, with 76 strikeouts and 47 walks. His 3.34 earned-run average was the best on the club. After the season Feller signed on for a brief barnstorming tour, pitching against Satchel Paige in Des Moines and traveling into the Dakotas and Canada.
Although one would assume that Feller would not have a worry in the world after his impressive beginning, he in fact did. Pursuant to a complaint from E. Lee Keyser, the owner of the Des Moines Demons, the closest minor-league team to Van Meter, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was investigating alleged irregularities in his signing by Cleveland, with the threat of declaring him a free agent. After summoning Bob and his father to his Chicago office shortly after the end of the season, Landis waited until December to decide that Feller could remain Cleveland property.
In the meantime, Feller spent the winter finishing high school, taking physics, English literature, American history, and government, before leaving for spring training in New Orleans. The Indians and New York Giants annually barnstormed north out of spring training, playing games in places like Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi; Thomaston, Georgia; Decatur, Alabama; Little Rock and Fort Smith, Arkansas; Tyler, Texas; and Shawnee, Oklahoma.
Feller first pitched against the Giants in Vicksburg and in three hitless innings struck out six Giants, four in succession. Everyone was impressed except Giants shortstop Dick Bartell, who said, “He’s not so fast. We’ve got several pitchers in the National League who can throw just as hard. I know he isn’t as fast as [Van Lingo] Mungo.” As the caravan moved on, Feller proceeded to strike out Bartell 16 out of 19 times. One sportswriter noted that Bartell went all the way to Fort Smith before he got a loud foul off Feller.
Overall, Feller had a terrific spring and was dubbed the “schoolboy wonder” in several national publications. Time magazine put him on its April 19 cover, only the second time a baseball player had been so honored.
It all came to a screeching halt on April 24. Feller, in pitching to the first batter in his first start of the year, felt a sharp pain in his elbow when throwing a curveball. He managed to get by only with fastballs for six innings before finally telling manager Steve O’Neill that he had hurt his arm. The Indians sent him to several specialists, most of whom recommended rest. He made national news when he flew home in May to attend his high-school graduation, but on his return to Cleveland was still not ready to take the mound. Finally, in June, Cy Slapnicka sent Feller to A.L. Austin, a chiropractor just a few blocks from League Park, the Indians’ home ballpark. He diagnosed a dislocated ulna bone as the problem, gave Feller’s arm a sudden twist, and pronounced him ready to pitch after one more day’s rest.
Two days later Feller threw in the bullpen and was pain-free. He returned to action on June 22 with two inning of work and then on July 4 threw four innings against the St. Louis Browns. He was wild but as fast as ever, giving up three runs but only one hit. A week later he pitched an eight-inning complete game against the Tigers, losing 3-2. By late July he was back in the rotation, starting every fifth day. He was 0-4 in his first four starts, but still overpowering most of the time. In August, he threw a 12-strikeout, 10-walk game against the Yankees in Yankee Stadium. Later in the month he struck out 16 Red Sox while walking only four and allowing just four hits.
For the 1937 season, Feller finished 9-7 despite his 0-4 start. In just under 149 innings, he allowed only 116 hits. His 3.39 earned-run average was second on the team to that of Johnny Allen, who won 15 while losing only a single game that season. Feller’s 150 strikeouts were fourth in the league even though he had missed three months of the season.
Incredible as it seems today, especially considering his sore arm, Feller again embarked on a barnstorming trip after the season, pitching against Paige and other top Negro League players. This tour was more extensive and wound through the hinterlands before arriving in Los Angeles.
So high had been the expectations for Feller that the Associated Press had unfairly named him “flop of the year” for 1937. The Indians still had faith in him and backed it with a salary of $17,500 for 1938, right in line with Joe DiMaggio and the highest-paid players on the Indians. New manager Oscar Vitt did not use Feller much in spring training, instead attempting to improve his delivery by shortening his leg kick in bullpen work. He started the second game of the season, on April 20 in League Park against the Browns, and pitched the first of 12 one-hitters of his career. The only hit was a sixth-inning bunt single that Billy Sullivan barely beat out.
In late June Feller defeated the legendary Lefty Grove of the Red Sox to run his won-loss record to 9-2 and, on the same day, was named to his first American League All-Star team. Still only 19 years old, he was the youngest player named to the Midsummer Classic. Although he did not appear in the game, won by the National League, 4-1, he was warming up in the bullpen to come in for the bottom of the ninth had the American League been able to tie the score.
Feller was not as effective after the All-Star break as the Indians faded to third place. The Yankees ran away with the 1938 pennant and as the season wound down, all attention was focused on Hank Greenberg’s run at Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record of 60. The season concluded on October 2 with Feller starting the first game of a Sunday doubleheader against the Tigers and Greenberg needing two home runs to tie Ruth. Rapid Robert lived up to his name that day, striking out 18 Tigers to set a new major-league strikeout record and steal the thunder from Greenberg, who went without a home run. It was almost anti-climactic that Feller lost the game, 4-1.
For the year, his first full big-league season, Feller won 17 and lost 11. His 240 strikeouts led the league as did his hard-to-believe 208 walks, which no doubt contributed to his 4.08 earned-run average. All this and Feller was still a teenager. As if 278 innings weren’t enough wear and tear on a 19-year-old arm, Feller took a brief barnstorming trip after the season.
Feller was given his first Opening Day start in 1939 and defeated Detroit, 5-1, fanning 10. Although the Indians were playing about .500 baseball, Feller had won five of his first six starts leading into his May 14 start against the White Sox in Cleveland. That day happened to be Mother’s Day and Feller’s mother was attendance, along with his father and sister. In the third inning, Chicago third baseman Marv Owens sliced a foul ball into the stands, striking Mrs. Feller flush in the face above her left eye and shattering her glasses. Cleveland officials rushed her to the hospital while a visibly shaken Feller managed to complete a 9-4 victory.
Undaunted, Feller continued to dominate the league, and by late June had put together an 11-3 record. On June 27 he started the first night game in Cleveland history, pitching against the Detroit Tigers. He proceeded to strike out 13 batters and allowed only one hit, a fifth-inning humpback drive off the bat of the recently traded Earl Averill that fell in front of center fielder Ben Chapman. By the All-Star break Feller was 14-3 and a shoo-in for the Midsummer Classic. This time he pitched in the game, entering in the fifth inning at Yankee Stadium with a 3-1 lead and holding the National League scoreless in 3⅔ innings of one-hit relief.
While the Indians finished the season in third place, Feller established himself as the top pitcher in the American League. He led the league with 24 wins, almost 297 innings pitched, 246 strikeouts, 24 complete games, and fewest hits allowed per nine innings. Still only 20 years old, he was the youngest starting pitcher in the league and the youngest ever to win 20 games. Never one to turn down an extra payday, Feller headed back to California after the season to barnstorm up and down the California coast.
In 1940 Feller was again the Opening Day hurler, this time with historic results. On April 16 in 40-degree weather in Comiskey Park in Chicago with his mother, father, and sister present, the 21-year-old Feller tossed a no-hitter to win, 1-0. As of 2012 it remained the only Opening Day no-hitter in major-league history. Feller continued to dominate as the Indians played themselves into the middle of the pennant race. On June 20 he defeated the Senators, 12-1, to push the club into first place. But while the team was playing well, at the same time Feller and others were revolting against their caustic manager, Oscar Vitt. The press got wind of the revolt and dubbed the team “the Crybabies.”
The team nonetheless held first place at the All-Star break. Feller, with a 13-5 record, was named to the All-Star team. He pitched two innings in the game, allowing one run in a 4-0 loss to the National League. In his next regular-season start, on July 12, he nearly had another no-hitter, allowing only an eighth-inning single to Dick Seibert of the Philadelphia A’s.
The pennant race was a tight one and the Indians went into the final series of the season against the Tigers trailing them by two games. Feller thus pitched the biggest game of his career to that point on September 27 in the first game of the series. The Tigers, essentially conceding the game and saving their best pitchers for the second and third games of the series, started unknown rookie Floyd Giebel. Although Feller gave up only three hits and two runs on a homer by Rudy York, Giebel pitched the game of his life and shut out the Indians to clinch the pennant for the Tigers.
For the year, the 21-year-old Feller won 27 games to lead the league, while losing 11. In one of the most dominating performances in history, he also led the league in six other categories, including strikeouts (261), earned-run average (2.61), innings pitched (320⅓), games (43), games started (37), complete games (31), and fewest hits per nine innings (6.9). He finished second in the league MVP voting and was named the 1940 Sporting News Player of the Year. Even with his prodigious regular-season workload, Feller could not resist a brief barnstorming tour into Montana and North Dakota before returning home to Van Meter for the winter.
The Indians’ 1941 spring training was in Fort Myers, Florida, and there Feller began dating Virginia Winther, the daughter of a wealthy Chicago family attending college at nearby Rollins. The Indians had finally fired Oscar Vitt in the offseason, replacing him with Roger Peckinpaugh. The club played well out of the gate and held first place into early June when it began to slump. But Feller had a spectacular first half and by the All-Star break was 16-4. That earned him his first All-Star Game start and he did not disappoint, striking out four and allowing only a single to Lonnie Frey in three innings.
While the Indians stumbled to a tie for fourth place, Feller again led the American League with 25 wins, against 13 losses. He repeated as the league leader in most major categories including innings pitched (343), strikeouts (260), shutouts (6), games pitched (44), and games started (40). Still only 22 years old, Feller now had 107 big-league victories.
He would remain stuck on that number for 3½ years, thanks to World War II. On December 7, 1941, Feller was driving from Van Meter to Chicago to meet with Cleveland officials about his 1942 contract. When he heard on the radio about the attack on Pearl Harbor, he immediately decided to enlist in the Navy and was sworn in at a Navy recruiting office in Chicago on December 9.
After a couple of weeks back home in Van Meter, Feller reported for basic training at the Norfolk Training Station in Virginia. When he completed basic training, he was given the rank of chief petty officer and became a physical-drill instructor. Beginning in March 1942, Feller played for the Training Station baseball team, playing minor-league clubs and other service teams. Feller estimated that the team won 92 of about 100 games played that spring and summer.
Feller, however, was not content with his light military duty and volunteered for gunnery school after he was turned down for pilot training because he failed a high-frequency-hearing test. He was assigned to the battleship Alabama,stationed in Norfolk, where he learned in early January 1943 that his father had died. He was granted a 10-day emergency leave to attend the services. Also, as his father had wished, Feller went ahead with wedding plans and married Virginia Winther in Waukegan, Illinois, before returning to his ship in Norfolk.
That spring and summer the Alabama was dispatched to the British Home Fleet to escort convoys along the North Atlantic corridor. In early August the Alabama was called home to Norfolk and dispatched to the Pacific, traveling through the Panama Canal before arriving at Efate in the New Hebrides Islands on September 14. For the first time since the previous September, Feller was able to play some baseball, pitching for the Alabama’s baseball team and playing first base for the softball team.
Beginning in November, however, the Alabama went into combat and over the next six months saw action off the Gilbert Islands, the Marshall Islands, Truk, Tinian, Saipan, and Guam. While at sea, Feller occasionally played catch on deck, but in the main was completely away from baseball. In late April and May, the Alabama went for refitting on the island of Majuro, where Feller was again able to pitch for the ship’s baseball team. He threw 47 consecutive scoreless innings at one juncture and continued to work on the slider he’d first developed in Norfolk.
In early June, the Alabama was out to sea again, participating in the invasion of Saipan. Feller participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, one of the most lopsided American victories in the war. In charge of a gunnery crew, he was in the heat of combat and later called the battle “the most exciting 13 hours of my life,” adding, “After that, the dangers of Yankee Stadium seemed trivial.” The Alabama continued to see action in and around the Philippines until it finally returning to Seattle for repairs and crew rotation in January 1945. Feller’s combat duties would be over.
After reuniting with his bride, Feller received a leave in early February and visited his mother in Van Meter. He was then assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station and in April succeeded Mickey Cochrane as manager of the base’s crack baseball team. During the summer of 1945 Feller pitched about 100 innings for Great Lakes, with the highlight coming on July 21, when he threw a 10-strikeout no-hitter before a crowd of 10,000 sailors.
Finally, on August 21, one week after VJ Day, Feller received his honorable discharge from the Navy. He had served for 44 months and accumulated eight battle stars. He was still only 26 years old.
Feller immediately signed a contract with the Indians for the balance of the 1945 season and was treated to a hero’s welcome before his first start, on August 24, just three days after his discharge. Before a crowd of more than 45,000 fans, Feller notched a complete-game 4-2 victory over the Detroit Tigers and their ace southpaw Hal Newhouser. Using his new slider with his fastball and curveball, Feller struck out 12 and allowed only four hits. It was his first big-league game in almost four years, but he had announced in no uncertain terms that he was back.
Feller made eight more starts for Cleveland in 1945, compiling a 5-3 record with a fine 2.50 earned-run average. He struck out 59 in 72 innings, allowing only 50 hits. His best game came on September 19 when, again facing the Tigers, he allowed only a bloop third-inning single by Jimmy Outlaw to finish with the sixth one-hitter of his career.
Feller was eager to make up some of his lost income from the war and organized a monthlong barnstorming trip which featured a number of matchups against Satchel Paige and other Negro League stars. Then on December 10, Virginia gave birth to the Fellers’ first child, a baby boy they named Stephan and called Stevie. In late January Feller organized and held a “free school” in Tampa, Florida, for baseball players returning from the war. More than 180 former players attended the three-week course and 66 eventually signed professional contracts.
During spring training Jorge Pasquel, a Mexican millionaire who was trying to create another major league south of the border, reportedly offered Feller a three-year contract at $100,000 a year to pitch in his new league. Feller was not anxious to leave the US after two years in the Pacific and turned it down, telling the press, “No chili con carne baseball for me.” He opened the 1946 season with a 1-0 shutout of the White Sox. Then, in his fourth start of the year, he threw his second career no-hitter, this time against the New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium in another tense 1-0 win. Those starts propelled Feller to one of the greatest seasons of pitching in major-league history. By the All-Star break Feller had 15 wins, half the way to the coveted 30. He pitched one-hitters on July 31 and August 8 to bring his career total to eight and break Addie Joss’s major-league record of seven. On August 14 he surpassed his personal season strikeout record of 261 and set his sights on Rube Waddell’s major-league record of 349.
With eight games left in the season, Feller stood at 320 strikeouts. Of the next seven games, he started two on short rest and relieved in another to tie the record at 343 heading in the final game of the season against the Tigers. His opponent was Hal Newhouser, who sported a 26-8 record. A tired Feller didn’t strike out anyone until the fifth inning, but then managed to fan five to break the record and finish at 348 strikeouts. For the season, he finished with 26 wins against 15 losses. The sixth-place Indians won only 68 games, meaning that Feller was the winning pitcher in more than 38 percent of his team’s wins. He threw an incredible 371⅓ innings in 48 games and 42 starts, 36 of which were complete games. He also led the league with 10 shutouts and his 2.18 earned-run average was the third lowest in the league.
While putting together this prodigious record, the tireless Feller was organizing an extensive postseason barnstorming trip in which “Bob Feller’s All-Stars” would play 34 games in 27 days. Feller rented two DC-3 airliners for the tour, which started in Pittsburgh and ended in Long Beach, California. Most of the opposition was provided by the “Satchel Paige All-Stars” with Paige and Feller toeing the mound for a few innings in virtually every game. In all the tour covered around 13,000 travel miles and drew an estimated 250,000 fans.
In January Feller signed a contract with new Indians owner Bill Veeck for 1947, which at $70,000 plus attendance bonuses, was reputed to surpass Babe Ruth’s $80,000 salary as the largest in sports history. Although Feller battled injuries in 1947 and elected not to pitch in the All-Star Game because of back pain, he put together another stellar campaign for the improving fourth-place Indians. He pitched two more one-hitters to bring his career total to 10, and finished the season with 20 wins against 11 losses. He led the league in games started (37), shutouts (5), strikeouts (196), and innings (299), and was second in earned-run average (2.68). After the season Feller, despite his heavy workload, went barnstorming, again, competing mostly against Satchel Paige and other Negro League stars.
With the Indians in a pennant race in 1948, Feller, at least for him, struggled during the first half of the season and was only 9-10 by the All-Star break. He battled arm fatigue after the break and was inconsistent, sometimes showing his old form and sometimes getting rocked. On October 3, the last day of the season, manager Lou Boudreau sent Feller to the mound against Hal Newhouser and the Tigers with a one-game lead. If the Indians won, they would win the pennant. Feller did not survive the third inning, however, and the Indians lost, 7-1, forcing a one-game playoff with the Red Sox in Boston.
The Indians won the playoff game, 8-3, behind the pitching of southpaw Gene Bearden, pitching on just one day’s rest.The following day, October 6, Boudreau tapped Feller to start the first game of the World Series against the National League champion Boston Braves. He was on his game and didn’t allow a hit until the fifth inning before retiring nine more Braves in a row. He headed into the bottom of the eighth inning locked in a scoreless tie against Braves ace Johnny Sain, who had scattered four hits. In the eighth Feller walked leadoff batter Bill Salkeld, who was replaced by pinch-runner Phil Masi, who was sacrificed to second. With two out, Feller turned and picked Masi off second by at least a foot; the only problem was that umpire Bill Stewart called Masi safe. Unfortunately for Feller and the Indians, Tommy Holmes then singled to left, scoring Masi and sending Feller to a 1-0 defeat.
Later, with the Indians leading the World Series three games to one, Feller toed the rubber for Game Five back in Cleveland with a chance to close out the Series. He was anything but sharp and struggled to a 5-5 tie into the seventh, when the roof really caved in on him and four relievers. The game ended in an 11-5 defeat. The Indians clinched the Series the next day in Boston but Feller had the ignominy of being the losing pitcher in the only two games the Indians lost in the Series.
Feller was no better than the third-best pitcher on the crack Indians staff in 1948, finishing with a 19-15 record and a 3.56 earned-run average. He did start 38 games, to lead the league, and although his strikeout total dropped to 164, that, too, was first in the league. After the season, Feller did not barnstorm, other than throwing seven shutout innings in an exhibition game to celebrate “Feller Day” in his hometown.
Named Opening Day starter in 1949, Feller strained a shoulder muscle warming up and lasted only two innings. By the All-Star break, he was only 6-6 and was not named to the AL team for the first time since 1937 (excepting the war years). He finished the season 15-14 with a 3.75 earned-run average as the Indians, beset with injuries, fell to third place. In 211 innings, Feller’s strikeouts fell to 108. He improved to 16-11 in 1950, with his ERA dropping to 3.43. At 31, Feller was no longer overpowering, but was still a quality starting pitcher and was again named to the All-Star team.
Feller started the 1951 season with a vengeance, and on June 30 stood 10-2 with a league-leading ERA of under 3.00. Yankees manager Casey Stengel nonetheless left him off the All-Star team. The day after the team was announced, Feller answered the slight by pitching the third no-hitter of his career, defeating the Tigers 2-1. Although Feller was not as sharp in the second half of the season, he still finished 22-8, leading the league in wins for the second-place Indians.
Unhappily, Feller’s 1952 season was a dud. He finished at 9-13 for the first losing record of his career. He also walked more than he struck out and gave up more hits than innings pitched, both also for the first time. His ERA was an unsightly 4.74 and his disappointing year had a lot to do with the Indians’ second consecutive second-place finish behind the Yankees. Although he had long had his sights set on 300 career victories, Feller was now resigned to falling short of that mark.
At 34, Feller was able to bounce back in 1953, becoming a serviceable once-a-week starter. He won 10 games, lost seven, and dropped his earned-run average over a run to 3.59 as the Indians again finished in second place behind the Yankees. He continued his success as a weekly starter in the Indians’ runaway 1954 pennant year, but in 1955 was restricted to spot starting and long relief. Finishing 4-4, he had a very serviceable 3.47 earned-run average in 83 innings of work. He still showed flashes of his old self, throwing the 12th one-hitter of his career, against the Red Sox on April 16.
Feller was back for more in 1956 and emerged from spring training as the Indians’ fifth starter. But after one ineffective start in April and another in May, he was relegated to the bullpen, where he was used mostly in mop-up duty. The Indians threw a day for him on September 9, honoring him with a new car and various other gifts. President Dwight Eisenhower sent a telegram lauding Feller for his military service and work with charities, which “makes a fine example of American manhood.”
The final start of Feller’s career was on September 30, the last day of the season. He pitched a complete game against the Detroit Tigers, losing 8-4 and failing to strike out a single batter. For the season, he appeared in only 19 games and threw only 58 innings, finishing 0-4 with a 4.97 earned-run average. Amid much speculation, Feller met on December 28 with Indians general manager Hank Greenberg. When he emerged he announced his retirement to the assembled press. He was 38 years old.
Although no one knew it at the time, Feller’s wife, Virginia, had become addicted to barbiturates and amphetamines shortly after the war ended. For the last 10 years of his playing career, Virginia was a constant worry and distraction for Feller. The couple had three sons and Feller had to hire a live-in maid to take care of them. Virginia had several stays in the Mayo Clinic, but couldn’t stem her addiction, which caused insomnia and other behavioral problems as well as stretching the family’s finances. Finally, in 1971 the couple divorced.
Feller did not slow down upon his retirement as an active player. He got into the insurance business in Cleveland and also joined Motorola as “consultant on youth activities,” crisscrossing the country supporting Little League programs by giving speeches and conducting baseball seminars and camps. In August 1957 he appeared on the Mike Wallace Interview program on ABC Television and created controversy by roundly criticizing baseball’s reserve clause. He became the first president of the Major League Players Association and helped develop its first pension plan.
In 1958 Feller briefly joined the Mutual Radio Network to help broadcast the Game of the Day. He was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility, receiving 150 of 160 votes cast. After his divorce, Feller was married again in 1974 to Anne Thorpe, a woman he had met in church. He sometimes participated in old-timer’s games and was a frequent guest at sports memorabilia shows around the country. In 1994 the Cleveland Indians erected a 10-foot bronze statue of him at their new Jacobs Field home and in 1995 the Bob Feller Museum, designed by Feller’s architect son, Steve, opened in Van Meter. Feller was still throwing a baseball every day well into his 80s and claimed to have thrown a baseball more often than any man in history. The last time he pitched was at an exhibition game in Cooperstown in June 2009, at the age of 90.
Feller was diagnosed with leukemia in August 2010 and died on December 15 of that year. He was 92 years old.
For his 18-year major-league career, Feller won 266 games against 162 losses. At 6 feet tall and 185 pounds, he was on the short side for a right-handed pitcher by contemporary standards. Both Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio labeled him the greatest pitcher either had ever seen.112 Although he lost almost four full seasons to service in World War II during the prime of his career, he still led the American League in victories six times and in strikeouts seven times. With his three no-hitters, 12 one-hitters, 279 complete games, and 44 shutouts, he was the dominant pitcher of his generation and one of the greatest of all time.
This article was written by Charles F. Faber
He is a bundle of contradictions, this imperfect man who pitched a perfect game. Don Larsen disdained training rules and had a mediocre major-league career; yet he pitched the greatest game in World Series history. He married out of a sense of duty; yet he refused to support his wife and baby daughter. He kept his marriage secret as long as he could, preferring to be viewed as a carefree bachelor. He loved the night life; yet he was living out his retirement years (as of 2015) in a quiet village in northern Idaho, far from the crowded bars of his youth. This man who turned down college scholarships because he didn’t like to study, the same man who had to be compelled by a court order to support his family, auctioned off one of his most prized possessions to raise money to support his grandchildren’s college education. Don Larsen is truly a bundle of contradictions.
Don James Larsen was born on August 7, 1929, in Michigan City, on the shores of Lake Michigan in extreme northwestern Indiana. He was the second child and only son of Charlotte and James Larsen. During his childhood his mother worked as a waitress in a restaurant, His father, son of Norwegian immigrants, was a watchmaker in a retail jewelry store. Years later Don Larsen remembered, “My first introduction to baseball was watching my father play sandlot ball.” When he was 4 years old Don started playing baseball with his father. James encouraged Don in his childhood ambition to become a professional baseball player. However, the youngster showed more talent in basketball than baseball. As a freshman, Don made the Michigan City High School basketball team.
In 1944 Don moved with his family to San Diego, where his mother worked as a housekeeper in a retirement home and his father became a jewelry salesman. At Point Loma High School Don became a star in basketball and baseball. He made the All-Metro Conference basketball team and received several scholarship offers to play college basketball, which he declined. He said, “I was never much with studies, and I didn’t really have an interest in going to college and studying my life away.” Art Schwartz, a scout for the St. Louis Browns, saw Larsen pitching for an American Legion team and offered him a contract. He signed for an $850 bonus.
The Browns sent the 17-year-old right-handed pitcher to Aberdeen in the Class-C Northern League. Larsen pitched two seasons for the Pheasants, winning four games in 1947 and 17 in 1948. He started the 1949 season with the Globe-Miami Browns in the Class-C Arizona-Texas League and was promoted in midseason to Springfield in the Class-B Three-I League. Another promotion came in 1950, as he moved from the Wichita Falls Spudders in the Class-B Big State League to the Wichita Indians in the Class-A Western League. He was described by Bob Turley, one of his teammates in both the minors and majors, as a “fun-loving guy who liked to go out and have a beer or two and talk to people in bars.”
In 1951 Larsen was drafted into the US Army. He spent two years during the Korean War in noncombat roles. After basic training at Fort Ord, he was sent to Hawaii. When an officer learned that Larsen was a professional baseball player, he assigned him to a Special Services unit at Fort Shafter. He pitched and played first base for an Army team during 1951 and 1952. Corporal Larsen was discharged in 1953 and went to spring training in 1953 on the roster of the San Antonio Browns. After several good pitching performances, he was promoted to the big-league Browns. “I’ll never forget how excited I was when I found out I made the club,” he said. “It was like Christmas in springtime.”
The 23-year-old stood 6-feet-4 and weighed 215 pounds. His teammates gave him the nickname Gooney Bird. Writer Lew Paper said it was because of his protruding ears, pear-shaped body, and long, dangling arms. Another writer, Peter Golenbock, said the nickname was bestowed because of Larsen’s antics.
Larsen made his major-league debut on Saturday, April 18, 1953, in the first game of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers at Briggs Stadium. The first batter he faced, Harvey Kuenn, touched him for a single, but he settled down and pitched shutout ball for five innings. He was knocked out of the box in the sixth, as the Tigers scored three runs to take a 3-2 lead. However, the Browns rallied to win the game, 8-7, with Larsen receiving no decision. He collected his first major-league win at Connie Mack Stadium on May 12, pitching 7⅔ innings and giving up one earned run in the Browns’ 7-3 win over the Philadelphia Athletics.
The Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954. That season Larsen led the league in losses with 21, while winning only three games, but fortunately for him two of the wins were over the New York Yankees, and Yankees manager Casey Stengel remembered those two wins. Larsen did not honor the midnight curfew set by the Browns. His motto was, “Let the good times roll. You give the best you can on the field. Who cares what you do afterwards, as long as you show up and do well.” Jimmy Dykes, his manager in Baltimore, said, “The only thing Don fears is sleep.”
During the season Larsen met the future Vivian Larsen, a 27-year-old telephone operator in Baltimore. At the end of the season he intended to break off the affair, but Vivian called him in California and told him she was pregnant. Abortion was out of the question. Larsen suggested she put the baby up for adoption. She refused. Vivian was determined to keep the baby. Larsen then did what he thought was the honorable thing. They were married on April 23, 1955. Don insisted that the marriage be kept secret; he was marrying her only for the sake of the child. Three months later he left her with no intention of returning because he was not ready to settle down and preferred “a life of free and easy existence.”
Larsen was traded to the New York Yankees on November 17, 1954, in a huge transaction involving 17 players. He reported to spring training in 1955 with a sore shoulder and was soon sent down to the Yankees’ farm club in Denver. He won 9 of 10 decisions for the Bears and after four months in the Triple-A American Association, he was recalled to New York. Between New York and Denver he had won 18 games that year, against only three losses. One of his teammates said, “He probably had a lot more ability than 95 percent of all the pitchers in baseball, He was a good hitter. He could run the bases. He could field the ball. But he was a lazy type.”
The Yankees won the American League pennant in 1955 and faced the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series. The Dodgers were playing in Brooklyn’s eighth World Series. They had seven losses to show for their first seven attempts. The Ebbets Field faithful were hoping for a different outcome in 1955. The Dodgers were a powerful club, featuring four future Hall of Famers — Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider — plus perennial all-star Gil Hodges and former Rookies of the Year Jim Gilliam and Don Newcombe. The Yankees won the first two games, but Brooklyn took Game Three. Larsen started Game Four for the Yankees and did not fare well. Although staked to a 3-1 lead, he gave up a leadoff home run to Campanella in the fourth inning. Larsen then walked Carl Furillo, and Hodges hit a two-run homer to put the Dodgers ahead. In the fifth inning Gilliam led off with a walk and stole second while Reese was batting, At this point Stengel replaced Larsen with Johnny Kucks, who gave up a single to Reese and a three-run homer to Snider, one run of which was charged to Larsen. When Yankees were unable to catch up, Larsen was tagged as the losing pitcher, with a line for the game of five earned runs on five hits and two walks.
Brooklyn won Game Five to go ahead in the Series, three games to two. New York evened it up by taking Game Six. The Series came down to Game Seven. Johnny Podres pitched a masterpiece, shutting out the Yankees, 2-0, thereby earning Brooklyn its first-ever world championship.
Larsen was thrilled to have pitched in the Series: “I had stretched beyond my childhood dreams by playing for the Yankees in the World Series. Even though we lost the championship to the Dodgers, I was thankful to have been even been there in the first place.”
Larsen’s appetite for strong drink and exuberant night life did not diminish. Mickey Mantle said of him, “Don had a startling capacity for liquor. Larsen was easily the greatest drinker I’ve known and I’ve known some pretty good ones in my time. During spring training 1956 Larsen wrecked his brand-new Oldsmobile by driving it into a St. Petersburg telephone pole at 4 or 5 o’clock one morning. He admitted that he had been drinking at several bars earlier in the night and said he had fallen asleep at the wheel.
His teammates thought Larsen was a bachelor, a devil-may-care playboy. They were shocked to learn of his secret marriage. Although Don and Vivian did not live together, she had moved to New York, attempting to collect some child-support money. On July 16, 1956, Justice Henry Greenberg of the Bronx Superior Court awarded Vivian $60 a week from Don in support of herself and their daughter, Caroline Jean. Don didn’t deliver. Living the high life that he enjoyed can be very expensive in New York City. He was having trouble making ends meet. He certainly didn’t have any spare cash to spend on a wife or child. He even asked the Yankees’ traveling secretary, Bill McCorry, for an advance on his World Series share: “I’ve got to get home to California when this is over, and I don’t have a nickel.” McCorry promised to deliver the cash if the Yankees won.
In October Vivian filed a complaint over Larsen’s failure to pay child support. (He had made four payments, then stopped paying.) He owed $420, for seven weeks in arrears at $60 per week.) Vivian’s lawyer, Harry Lipsig, said, “While this baseball hero is enjoying the luxuries of life and the plaudits of the public, he is subjecting his 14-month-old baby girl and his wife to the pleasures of a starvation existence.” Bronx Superior Court Justice Sam H. Hofstadter filed a filed an order requiring the Yankees, Larsen, and Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick to show cause why his World Series share should not be seized by the Bronx Supreme Court.
The court order was in Larsen’s locker when he took the mound in Yankee Stadium and pitched the most incredible game in World Series history. The Yankees had won the pennant for the second straight year in a streak that was to yield four consecutive flags. They faced the defending World Series champion Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Dodgers won Game One at Ebbets Field behind the pitching of Sal Maglie. Larsen pitched briefly in Game Two. He faced only 10 batters, six of whom reached base safely, one on a base hit, one on an error, and four by means of walks. Larsen was charged with four unearned runs. The Dodgers won a slugfest. The Series then moved to Yankee Stadium. The home team won Games Three and Four to even the Series at two games apiece. Given Larsen’s poor performances in the 1955 fall classic and Game Two of the present match, there was little reason to expect him to start another game in the Series.
On the night before Game Five, Larsen went out for a few beers with Arthur Richman, a sportswriter for the New York Daily Mirror. Before midnight they headed back toward Larsen’s hotel apartment. During the cab ride Larsen told Richman, “I’m gonna beat those guys tomorrow. And I’m just liable to pitch a no-hitter.” It was typical Larsen bluster. Actually, he had no idea he was going to pitch. Stengel had not yet announced the starting pitcher for the next day’s game. Following the Yankees custom at the time, whenever the starter had not been determined the night before, in the morning coach Frankie Crosetti would place the warm-up ball for the day’s game in one of the starting pitcher’s shoes.
Earlier that evening Herman Carey, father of Yankees third baseman Andy Carey, entered a novelty shop on Times Square that printed fake newspaper headlines. He purchased two. One read “Larsen Pitches No-hitter.” The other stated “Gooney Birds Pick Larsen to Win Fifth Game.” He returned to the hotel and taped the one about the no-hitter to the door of Larsen’s room. Then he had second thoughts. He didn’t want to risk jinxing the pitcher. So he shredded the paper and disposed of it. He kept the other one, without showing it to Larsen at the time.
It turned out that the fake headlines were prescient. To the surprise of most of the Yankees, manager Stengel chose Larsen to start Game Five. The pitcher arrived at the ballpark early in the morning of October 8, saw the ball, and learned he would be the starting pitcher. He took a whirlpool bath and a cold shower, and had a rubdown. He lay down for a short nap in the clubhouse. Larsen was opposed by the tough Sal “The Barber” Maglie. Both men were at the top of their games. Using his new no-windup delivery, Larsen was unhittable. Maglie was almost as good, retiring the first 11 batters in a row until Mantle hit a solo blast in the fourth inning. By the end of the sixth inning it began to dawn on viewers that they might be watching history in the making. In keeping with baseball superstition, nobody on the Yankee bench mentioned a possible no-hitter, but surely it was on everybody’s mind.
Larsen said he knew he was pitching a no-hitter, since every pitcher knows when he is throwing one. He said, “I tried to engage in conversation with some of our players on the bench during the game, but they all avoided me like the plague.
Larsen mowed the Dodgers down, through the seventh, eighth, and into the ninth inning. He retired the first two batters in the ninth. Up came Dale Mitchell to pinch-hit for Maglie. Larsen’s first pitch was a ball, high and outside. Next came a slow curve over the plate for a called strike. Mitchell swung at another curve and missed for strike two. He fouled off a fastball. Then he took a quarter-swing at a fastball that seemed to some to be eye-high. Umpire Babe Pinelli called him out. Don Larsen had pitched the first no-hitter in World Series history. Not only was it a no-hitter, but it was a perfect game — no hits, no runs, with no one reaching base.
“Damn,” said sports reporter Dick Young. “The imperfect man just pitched a perfect game.”
Shirley Povich of the Washington Post wrote, “The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen today pitched a no-hit, no-run, no-man-reach-first game in a World Series.”
The San Francisco Chronicle wrote about “madcap Don Larsen, a carefree soul who breaks automobiles, likes bright lights, reads comic books…and is just about the last person in baseball who might be expected to pitch a perfect game.”
Larsen sent $420 to Harry Lipsig to give to his wife and daughter. “This man is still no hero,” the lawyer said. “In these proceedings, he has brazenly suggested when his daughter was born she was immediately to be given out for adoption.”
The Dodgers won Game Six, but the Yankees took Game Seven and again reigned as baseball’s world champions.
One month after Larsen’s perfect game, he and Vivian divorced.
In 1957 Larsen got off to a poor start, but improved toward the end of the season, winding up with a commendable 10-4 record. The Yankees won the pennant again. In the World Series against the Milwaukee Braves, Larsen won one and lost one. In Game Three he relieved Bob Turley in the second inning and pitched well throughout the game, getting credit for the win as the Yankees prevailed, 12-3. In Game Seven Larsen was the starting pitcher, but was knocked out of the box in the third inning. With one out and a man on base, shortstop Tony Kubek made an errant throw to second base on a grounder hit by Johnny Logan. Eddie Mathews then doubled, and Larsen was out of the game. Lew Burdette pitched a shutout for his third win of the Series. The Braves were world champions for the first time since the Miracle Braves of 1914.
On December 7, 1957, Larsen married Corrine Bruess, a 26-year-old flight attendant from Minnesota, whom he had met on a flight out of Kansas City. This marriage endured. Apparently Corinne brought some much-needed stability to his life. The union produced one son, Scott, born October 5, 1962.
Both New York and Milwaukee repeated as pennant winners in 1958. Larsen started two games in the 1958 World Series. In Game Three he pitched shutout ball until relieved by Ryne Duren in the eighth inning and received credit for the win in the Yankees' 4-0 victory. In Game Seven Larsen was removed in the third inning with one out and two Braves on base and the Yankees leading, 2-1. Bob Turley erased the Braves threat and was credited with the win as the Yankees won the game, 6-2, for their 18th triumph in the fall classic.
The Yankees slipped to third place in the 1959 standings and Larsen had a losing record at 6-7. On December 11, 1959, he was traded, along with Hank Bauer, Norm Siebern, and Marv Throneberry, to the Kansas City Athletics for Joe DeMaestri, Roger Maris, Kent Hadley, and Gerry Staley.
Larsen had very little success in Kansas City, losing 10 out of 11 decisions. The A’s sent him down to Dallas-Fort Worth in the Triple-A American Association, where he won two of three decisions, earning another shot at the majors. He appeared in only eight games for the A’s before being traded with Andy Carey, Ray Herbert, and Al Pilarcik to the Chicago White Sox for Wes Covington, Stan Johnson, Bob Shaw, and Gerry Staley. He had a combined 8-2 record for the two clubs.
Soon he was on the move again. On November 30, 1961, Larsen was traded with Billy Pierce to the San Francisco Giants for Bob Farley, Eddie Fisher, Dom Zanni, and Verle Tiefenthaler. In the City by the Bay, Larsen became a full-time reliever, winning five games and saving 10. The Giants finished the regular season tied for first place with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the deciding game of the three-game playoff for the pennant, Larsen relieved Juan Marichal in the eighth inning and received credit for the win, as the Giants won their first championship after their move to the West Coast. In Game Four of the 1962 World Series against the New York Yankees, Larsen picked up a win, even though he pitched only one-third of an inning. He entered the game in the bottom of the sixth inning, with two outs, runners on first and second, and the game tied, 2-2. Larsen walked Yogi Berra to load the bases and then induced Tony Kubek to ground out, ending the inning. In the top of the seventh, Larsen was lifted for a pinch-hitter, as the Giants took a lead they did not relinquish.
In 1963 Larsen had a 7-7 record with four saves for the Giants. The much-traveled pitcher was sold to the Houston Colt .45’s on May 20, 1964, and was traded less than a year later to the Baltimore Orioles for Bob Saverine and cash. He won only one game for the Orioles before being released on April 11, 1966. He spent much of the next three seasons in the minors, toiling for clubs in Phoenix, Dallas-Fort Worth, Tacoma, and San Antonio.
Before the 1967 season began, the Chicago Cubs signed Larsen as a free agent. He pitched only four innings for the Cubs. His final major-league appearance came on July 7, 1967, at Houston’s Astrodome in an 11-5 Cubs loss. He entered the game in the sixth inning and pitched two innings, giving up one run and one base on balls. On the last pitch the 37-year-old Larsen threw in the major leagues, Jim Wynn flied out to Billy Williams in left field to end the seventh inning. Larsen was removed for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning, and his major-league career was over.
After retiring from baseball, Larsen worked for about 25 years as a salesman for the Blake, Moffett & Towne Paper Company in the San Jose area. When he retired from this occupation, he, Corinne, and Scott moved to the shores of Hayden Lake, not far from Coeur d’Alene in Idaho’s scenic Panhandle, about 100 miles from the Canadian border. “I like Idaho because it’s peaceful and quiet,” Larsen said.
Don’s son, Scott, as of 2015 was a maintenance technician for an aerospace company in Idaho. Scott and his wife, Nancy, gave Don two grandsons, Justin and Cody. Don, his sons, and grandsons enjoy trout fishing and frogging together, hunting by spotlights in the cool of a northern Idaho morning.
In 2012 Larsen announced that he was retrieving the uniform he had worn when pitching the perfect game. He had loaned it to the San Diego Hall of Champions, but he intended to auction off his most prized possession to raise money for his grandchildren’s college educations. He listed it with Steiner Sports Marketing for an online auction that ran from October 8 to December 2 at steinersports.com. “I really don’t know what it’s worth,” Larsen said. “But what I do know is that in terms of historic importance, my uniform is a part of one of the greatest moments in the history of sports. I have thought about that perfect game, more than once a day, every day of my life since the day I threw it.”
The auction attracted 22 bids. The uniform sold for $756,000. The winning bidder was Pete Seigel, CEO of Gotta Have It, a New York City gallery that collects and displays pop-culture memorabilia. Seigel said that Larsen’s uniform would be a welcome addition to a collection of Yankees memorabilia that his company was building.
Three-quarters of a million dollars is surely enough to pay Justin and Cody’s college expenses. There may be enough extra cash to enable the Larsen family to take their hoped-for trip to Alaska.
This article was written by Tom Nahigian
“Every time I see his name on a lineup card, I feel like throwing up.” — Mickey Mantle
The pitcher who made the great Mickey Mantle reluctant to step into the batter’s box was the one and only Dean Chance. Mantle uttered his memorable quote during Chance’s remarkable 1964 season. As sportswriter Phil Pepe wrote that year, “It’s Chance, not CBS, who owns the New York Yankees. Lock, stock and barrel.” Chance pitched 50 innings against the Yankees that year, allowing only 14 hits and one run, a homer by Mantle. In five starts he threw four complete games and three shutouts, going 4-0 with a 0.18 ERA. In his only no decision, on Saturday, June 6 at Chavez Ravine, Chance was matched up against Jim Bouton. The two aces matched zeros for 13 innings, before Bouton was removed. Chance pitched one more inning before departing after the 14th inning. The Yankees scored twice against the Angels bullpen in the 15th and won 2-0.
For the record, Mantle went 13-53 against Chance over his career, a .245 average with a .403 on base percentage and a .415 slugging average, though he did homer three times. Chance’s years of stardom were few, but he had many memorable moments while they lasted.
Wilmer Dean Chance was born on June 1, 1941 in the farming community of Wooster, Ohio, where his family owned a 166-acre dairy farm. When he wasn’t milking cows, Chance was playing sports — as a gangly pitcher and basketball forward, he made his name at Northwestern High School. One report said that Chance pitched 18 no-hit games during high school and lost only once. He was also an all-state basketball player who received 100 college offers. The Baltimore Orioles were building up their farm system in those days, and in 1959 they signed Chance out of high school for $30,000.
Chance pitched for two seasons in the Orioles farm system, for the 1959 Bluefield Orioles of the Class D Appalachian League, and in 1960 for the Fox Cities Foxes of the Class B Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League, winning 22 games in total. After the 1960 season American League teams had to make decisions on which players to expose in an expansion draft, hastily put together to stock the two new teams being formed in Washington and Los Angeles. The Orioles considered Chance too brash, and they ultimately chose to protect fellow pitcher Arne Thorsland instead of Chance. On December 14, 1960, the new Washington Senators selected Chance with the 48th pick in the draft. Chance did not have long to get comfortable with his new team, as that same day the Senators traded Chance to their fellow expansion team, the Los Angeles Angels, for outfielder Joe Hicks.
Soon after the draft he married Judy Larson on January 14, 1961, with Thorsland serving as his best man. (Thorsland hurt his arm the next spring and did not win another professional game.) Dean and Judy had a son Brett Dean, born in 1962. The couple later divorced.
Chance was a big man at 6’3” and weighed 204 pounds, with striking blue eyes and brown hair. On the mound, Chance threw a sinking fastball, a sweeping curve, and a slider. He had a good fastball and could also throw a changeup screwball. During his delivery he turned his back to the hitter. Over his career, right-handed batters hit .223 and left-handed batters hit .248 against him. He had particularly wonderful control against the Yankees. Author Arnold Hano said that Mickey Mantle had a hard time hitting him because Chance threw pitches low and outside at the knee. At that point in his career, Mantle could not get under the ball. Chance had a swing arm motion, a three-quarters delivery. He never threw pitches above the waist. He was able to pitch like a smaller man, pitched with a bent body.
Chance began the 1961 season with the Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers in the Triple-A American Association, posting a 9-12 record with a 3.66 ERA. The team included Jim Fregosi and Bob Rodgers, and all three of them were called up to the Angels later that season. Chance pitched five games, losing his two decisions and recording a 6.87 ERA in just 18 1/3 innings.
Dean Chance met Bo Belinsky for the first time in spring training in Clearwater, Florida, in 1959. Chance had a car and he let Belinsky use it. When the Angels selected Belinsky from the Orioles in the Rule 5 Draft on November 27, 1961, and the two subsequently made the Angels in 1962, they became teammates and then roomed together during the 1963 and 1964 seasons.
Belinsky grew up poor in Trenton, New Jersey, and became a pool hustler at a young age, but his strong left arm eventually got him into organized baseball. At 6’2” and 191 pounds, Belinsky was movie star handsome, with a winning personality and charm that made him quite successful with the opposite sex.
Belinsky, with zero big league experience, immediately made a splash by holding out for more money, an announcement he made at a poolside press conference. He settled, and won his first five starts, including a no-hitter against the Orioles on May 5. He was soon big news, pushing Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale off the front pages of the Los Angeles sports section. He made the acquaintance of gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who attended the no-hitter, and soon got to know much of the Hollywood jet set.
Belinsky and Chance were often seen driving around town in Belinsky’s candy-apple-red Cadillac, a gift from a car dealership after his no-hitter. Bo soon slumped and finished with a 10-11 record. “Dean and I were a marriage made in heaven or hell,” Belinsky later said. “I saw Chance in spring training in 1962 with a wife and kid. Some guys belong with a wife and kid. Dean and me just didn’t belong with a wife and kid, especially in Hollywood.” Chance said of Belinsky, “Nobody made it with girls the way Bo did. I never learned his secret, but I enjoyed trying.”
Belinsky made the rounds in Hollywood, dating stars like Ann-Margret, Tina Louise, Juliet Prowse, and Connie Stevens, among others. He had a much-publicized engagement with Mamie Van Doren, then broke it off. He married Jo Collins, Playboy’s Playmate of the Year for 1965, and later paper heiress Janie Weyerhauser. In the meantime, his career never lived up to the success he enjoyed over his first five big league starts.
On the other hand, Dean Chance, the other half of the playboy twosome, became a star. Chance was a workhorse starter, who pitched over 200 innings a season for seven straight years beginning in 1962, twice leading the American League in most innings pitched. In their maiden season of 1961 the Angels finishing a surprisingly strong 70-91, finishing 8th in a 10-team league. The Angels played in hitter-friendly Wrigley Field in Los Angeles and swatted out 189 homers.
When Dodger Stadium opened in 1962, the Angels became tenants of the Dodgers and played their home games there through the 1965 season. When the Angels played their home games the park was referred to as Chavez Ravine.
The season of 1962 was a great one for both Chance and the Angels. At the end of August, the Angels were in third place, only three and a half games behind the league-leading New York Yankees. The Angles remained in third, winning 86 games and finishing 10 games behind, a remarkable season for a second year expansion team. Several expansion franchises have experienced many losing seasons before becoming competitive but the Angles bucked that trend and Chance was one of the main reasons why. He led the team in victories with 14 and posted a 2.96 ERA. He pitched in 50 games and started 24. He finished third in the American League’s Rookie of the Year balloting.
The 1963 season was one of growing pains for both the Angels and Chance. The team won 70 games and dropped to 9th place in the 10-team league. Chance finished 13-18 with a 3.19 ERA. He pitched in 45 games with 35 starts, one behind team leader Ken McBride.
Chance put it all together for the 1964 Angels, who won 82 games and moved up to fifth place. Due partly to a blister on his pitching hand, Chance started slowly, starting only three games as of May 15 and he sported a 5-5 record on July 1st. Beginning on July 11, he pitched three consecutive complete game shutouts and never looked back, finishing 15-4 over the remainder of the year. His first half ERA was an excellent 2.18, but he topped that with an astonishing 1.29 in the second half.11 Of his 20 victories, 11 were shutouts, including five games by a 1-0 score. He finished 11-3 at home with a 1.07 ERA. After the season Chance was rewarded with the Cy Young Award, at the time given out to only one pitcher in baseball.
After the 1964 season the Angels traded Belinsky to the Phillies, partly due to his fight with a Los Angeles Times reporter. Full of promise two years earlier, the Angels decided that his performance did not justify all the off-field problems. The Angels slipped to 75 wins and 7th place in 1965, and Chance dropped to a respectable 15-10 with a 3.15 ERA in 226 innings. In 1966 the Angels moved into their own ballpark, Anaheim Stadium, and led the league with an attendance of 1.4 million. In their new digs the Angels won 80 games, while Chance finished 12-17 with a 3.08 ERA.
Chance remarked after the season, “I think it is only natural for any man who has enjoyed a great year in any business to attempt to come back to it. However, it is not until the breaks start going against you that you begin to press. Sure, I’ve been pressing but I wasn’t at the start.” Angels pitching coach Marv Grissom said, “I still believe Dean is capable of throwing a shutout every time he starts. If I knew why he doesn’t, I’d retire a millionaire.” Chance earned an annual salary of $47,000 in 1965 and 1966. The Angels offered a cut of 23% to $36,000 for 1967. He reflected, “I deserve and expect to be cut the full amount. All I’ve done this season is qualify for comeback-of-the-year honors. Maybe a salary cut will give me a greater incentive.”
On December 2, 1966, the Angels traded Chance and shortstop Jackie Hernandez to the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Pete Cimino, outfielder Jimmie Hall and first baseman Don Mincher. Angels Manager Bill Rigney said of the trade: “I’m not sure we’ll find another arm like Dean’s, but we had to do something about our first-base situation and overall hitting.” Chance allowed, “I’m not surprised to be traded, but I am shocked that the Angels would trade me to an AL club. I’m shocked that they’d run the risk of letting me come back to haunt them.”
In 1967, as he had prophesied, Chance was named the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year. Chance finished 20-14 with a 2.73 ERA and led the league in starts, complete games and innings pitched. He started his second All-Star Game (he had also started the 1964 game). Pitching on the familiar mound of Anaheim Stadium, Chance pitched three strong innings, allowing only a home run to Dick Allen in the second inning. The National League won the game 2-1 on a home run by Tony Perez in the top of the 15th inning off Catfish Hunter. Chance also pitched two no-hitters, a rain-shortened five-inning perfect game against Boston on August 6, and a nine-inning gem against Cleveland on August 25.
The Twins were one of four teams involved in an historic pennant race, and Chance was on the mound for the final game of the 1967 season, matched against the Boston Red Sox and Jim Lonborg, with a chance to at least clinch a tie for the pennant. The Twins led the Red Sox 2-0 heading into the bottom of the 6th inning, but the Red Sox rallied for five runs to drive Chance from the game and ultimately won the contest and the pennant.
Chance had another excellent year in 1968 but with less luck, winning 16 and losing 16 while pitching 292 innings with a 2.53 ERA. Prior to the 1969 season, Chance hurt his back rushing himself into shape and never pitched as well again. Chance spent 54 days on the disabled list and finished 5-4 with a 2.95 ERA. He did make it into his first post-season, as the Twins won the new AL West and faced off against the Baltimore Orioles in the playoffs. The Orioles swept the series, and Chance was ineffective in his two innings, allowing four hits and three runs.
After three seasons as a Twin, Chance was traded to the Cleveland Indians on December 10, 1969 with Bob Miller, Graig Nettles and Ted Uhlaender for Luis Tiant and Stan Williams. Chance grew up 50 miles from Cleveland and he and his parents were all Indians fans. “Just say that I couldn’t be happier, and say that I have been trying to get to Cleveland for six years, and say that I hope that this is my last move. I want to finish out my career here.” Indians manager was elated. “Dean is a winner,” he said. “I’ve always liked him. I’m sure he can help us plenty.” Dean’s mother said after the trade “Now I can root for the Indians all the time.” Dean’s parents were frequent visitors to Memorial Stadium.
In his first start of the 1970 season, Chance faced New York in Yankee Stadium on Saturday, April 11 and pitched seven innings of shutout baseball to earn the win. Relievers Mike Paul and Dennis Higgins completed the shutout, with the Indians winning 3-0. But the season proved to be a struggle, as Chance finished 9-8 with a 4.24 ERA. On September 18 Chance was sold to the New York Mets, who were locked in a division race. He pitched only two innings, and the Mets finished third.
Prior to the 1971 season Mets manager Gil Hodges said, “I’m thinking now of trying him in the bullpen and using him as an occasional starter. But it will depend on how the rest of the staff shapes up.”17 Instead, in late March Chance was traded to the Detroit Tigers. He pitched in 31 games in 1971 and started 14, finishing 4-6 with a 3.51 ERA. Chance won his final game on July 28 when Al Kaline hit a game-ending homer to make Chance the winner in relief. Chance pitched his final game in Boston’s Fenway Park on Monday, August 9th. He relieved starter Les Cain, allowed singles to Luis Aparicioand Reggie Smith and was replaced by Fred Scherman. The Tigers released him on October 6, 1971.
For all his pitching success, including 128 wins and a stellar 2.92 ERA, not everything came easily. Four times he led his league in pitcher errors. He was also a very unproductive hitter. For players with at least 500 plate appearances during their career, Chance has the lowest batting average at .066. In 662 at bats, he struck out 420 times. Allowed Chance, “I am a horrible hitter.”
How did Chance do overall against the Yankees? He finished 18-11 with a 2.34 ERA against, comparing favorably to notable Yankee killer Frank Lary of the Tigers, who was 28-13 with a 3.32 ERA against the Bronx Bombers.
Since his retirement from baseball, Chance has tended to his real estate holdings, worked for a carnival, worked with a poster company and managed boxer Ernie Shavers. He is president of the International Boxing Association. He is also a world-class gin player He works with former Angels clubhouse assistant Bob Case. His hobbies are bowling and basketball.
Belinsky and Chance remained lifelong friends. Chance refused to attend an autograph show unless Belinsky was also invited. In a 1991 interview, Belinsky said that he was at a benefit with Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton when two kids came up and asked for an autograph. Carlton reached out to sign and one of the kids says, “No, my dad said to get Mr. Belinsky’s autograph." Belinsky remarked: “I told Steve that he did it the easy way, by winning 300 games. You just try to get all this notoriety on 28 victories. Now that takes a lot of work.”
Through the years, both Chance and Belinsky made peace with God. Belinsky remarked a year before his death: “Can you imagine? I had to come to Las Vegas to discover Jesus Christ.” After Belinsky’s death in 2001, Chance observed, “We made mistakes, tried not to hurt anyone. We were kids in a different time, pitching in a great city. It was like feeling that you had the world at your feet, like it would never end and I think about those good times a lot and often talked with Bo about them. I can also tell you that if I had a dollar for every time somebody asked me where Bo was and what he was doing, I’d be a wealthy man. Everybody remembered him and I’m just glad he got his life straightened out and he knew in his last year where he was going.”
Chance arranged a memorial service for Belinsky in Dodger Stadium. He also handled the arrangements for his burial in Las Vegas. “Bo was a one-of-a-kind guy and there won’t be another one like him,” said Chance. “He was full of cancer, his heart was bad and his hip was hurting him terribly at the end. He had slipped and fallen and it was really tough on him. But he made his peace with the Lord and he is probably better off today than he was last week. He’s not suffering terribly any more.”
As Chance told author Robert Goldman, “Everybody, by the time they’re 50, they’re selfish as hell. Everybody thinks only of himself or herself. Then, when they hit 60, they want to return to religion and want to forgive everybody. They want to go to heaven, and that’s the stage I’m in.
Chance died at age 74 on October 11, 2015, in Wooster, Ohio.