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Carl Schinasi

The Perfect Game, the Invincible Record

Go figure. Who could ever imagine a visit to a New York Mets game on June 21, 1964 would turn out to be a date with history?

On that fateful Sunday my friends Alan, Jerry, and I went to Shea Stadium to watch the Mets play. We were big Met fans. In 1964 the Mets, officially the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club, were still neophytes in the National League, the worst team in baseball and a team so bad it could be counted among the worst teams in the history of organized sports. In 1962, their inaugural season, they lost 120 games, the most any team had lost since the Cleveland Spiders demonstrated an even greater ineptitude on the diamond when they lost 134 games. That was in 1899.

Casey Stengel, “the old perfessor” (who by 1962 looked to some like he had played for the 1899 Cleveland Spiders) managed the Mets. Sports pages reported daily the players’ blunders and miscues, errors that often defied gravity, or even the imagination. Sports commentators and columnists around the country marveled at the Mets’ lack of skill and basic baseball knowledge. In 1963 the Mets improved. They lost only 111 games. But with their collection of youthful major league wannabes (such as Hot Rod Kanehl, Ray Daviault, and Cliff Cook) and tired retreads (among them the ironically named Marvelous Marv Throneberry, and the now long forgotten journeyman Joe Ginsberg, who caught the team’s first two games and then disappeared from the baseball landscape forever), the Mets were more fun to watch than the Ringling Brothers’ clowns. They became lovable losers, a band of mostly rag-tag ball players who easily recalled the once adored Brooklyn Bums of the 30’s and 40’s, and we New Yorkers were wild about them.

Alan, Jerry, and I started out in late morning, and the day already showed signs of delivering a mesmerizing heat. We hopped aboard the stiff old Q15 bus in Whitestone Queens, transferred to the rattling and steamy F train in Flushing and made our way to Shea Stadium. The Mets were playing the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies were off to a fast start (and on the road to one of the most memorable late season collapses in major league history). By June 21 they were in first place. Jim Bunning (the same Jim Bunning who is now a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and a United States senator from Kentucky) was pitching for the Phillies that day. Nineteen-sixty four was Bunning’s first year in the National League, and he was clearly taking advantage of his transition to the senior circuit where the hitters were unfamiliar with him. On June 21 his record stood at 6 wins, 2 losses.

We arrive at Shea Stadium early, load up on refreshments, and take our seats in the second deck along the third base side. As the large crowd is still entering the ballpark, the Mets start the game in characteristic Mets fashion. Tracy Stallard, the Mets pitcher, walks the Philly leadoff hitter, John Briggs. Gene Mauch, the Philly manager, immediately resorts to small ball and has his second batter, the weak hitting John Hernstein, bunt. The bunt is perfect. Herrnstein sacrifices Briggs to second. The next batter, center fielder Johnny Callison, strikes out. Richie Allen is in his rookie year and has already earned a reputation as a dangerous and powerful hitter. He bats fourth. Allen (who will collect over 200 hits that year--something Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle never did -- and be selected the National League’s Rookie of the Year) scorches a Stallard pitch to left. Briggs scores on the hit, and just like that, after four Phillies bat and before the incoming crowd has a chance to settle, the Mets are losing 1-0. The hole the Mets find themselves in is no surprise to us loyal Mets fans, since such starts are what we have come to expect from our club.

In the bottom of the first, Bunning finds the Mets easy pickings. He retires the first three batters, Jim Hickman, Ron Hunt, and Ed Kranepool, on eight pitches. As the Mets take the field to start the second inning, I am already perspiring. A sticky sweat annoyingly seeps through my T-shirt, and fans around me are dabbing themselves with shirtsleeves and kerchiefs. One fan, an obese, florid-faced fellow in a tight fitting black knit shirt, is mopping his underarms with a wilted napkin. I glance toward the mound, and even from a distance it’s clear Tracy Stallard has worked up a sweat. His jersey is already deeply stained by the heat of his labors. So with the Mets in the hole and the heat pounding down I think, this is going to be a long afternoon for the Mets and for us, their loyal fans.

In the top of the second inning the Phillies almost repeat what they did in the first. Leadoff hitter Tony Taylor walks. Cookie Rojas lays down a perfect bunt that sacrifices Taylor to second. The third batter, catcher Gus Triandos, smacks a drive to left. “Hawk” Taylor, the left fielder who is used more often as a catcher, does what Met fielders do so often that year. He approaches the ball as if it is a hot potato, and has a tough time handling it. The scorekeepers undoubtedly take pity on Taylor, toiling as he is in such heat, and they do not give him an error. Triandos winds up wit h a double, and Tony Taylor scores easily from second. So before we can swipe away another bead of sweat, the Phillies are up, two to zip. Stallard retires the next two batters, and the Mets come to the plate. In the bottom of the second, Bunning mows down the Mets like they are straw men; one, two, three and they are out.

The Phillies and Mets each go quietly in the third. The Phillies show nothing in the fourth, although Cookie Rojas singles and Mets catcher, Jesse Gonder, dispatches the slow-footed Rojas as he tries to steal second. By the time the Mets come up in the bottom of the fourth, a real pitcher dual is developing, and the action on the field slows to a snail’s pace, the pace at which pitcher duals often proceed. Things are so slow, as a matter of fact, that the Mets have yet to reach base. Ron Hunt, who later in his career sets a major league record for being plunked the most times by the pitcher (50 times in 1971), has not yet been beaned, and even more astonishing, the Amazin’ Mets have amazingly desisted from erring in the field. The heat is by now causing tiny blisters to erupt on my skin, and I am more than a little uncomfortable and restless. My friends are equally fidgety. By now they are spending more time examining the young ladies in the crowd than the deceptive pitches Bunning is using to mystify the Mets. So in the tedium of that oppressive heat, with little activity occurring on the diamond, my friends and I decide to create some action of our own.

Being teenagers, and we thought good Samaritans, we get the bright idea to cool off the sweltering spectators sitting below us. What better and easier manner to accomplish this act of kindness than to shower them? Which to our great amusement we promptly begin to do. We fill our large refreshment cups with water and fire short bursts over the railing onto the sweltering fans in the lower deck. After receiving intermittent and unexpected showers, some fans do not appreciate the magnanimous offering. In fact, some of them are mightily peeved, and unknown to us they inform security of their displeasure.

In the bottom of the fourth inning Bunning retires the first two Mets. Ed Kranepool is at bat and he takes a roundhouse swing at one of Bunning’s immaculate pitches only to pop it straight back. At the very moment Gus Triandos circles under the ball, I unleash another purgative spill. As luck would have it, at that exact moment, security guards appear and cast a cold eye my way. And whattaya think? Here they come; they head straight for me. I can see they are already more than a little miffed at having to stand around wearing starched uniforms in that bruising heat, and from the looks of things it does not appear they are about to suggest we take a leisurely stroll to the concession stand to share a cool beverage.

They arrive at my seat, and I offer them a weak smile and some parch-lipped reasoning. I explain that sprinkling the fans below was a charitable offering; it was preventing my fellow Mets faithfuls from suffering heat stroke or possibly a worse fate, a trip to the hospital for resuscitation. The security guards are not convinced. Nor are they outwardly amused. Even at such a tender age I sense that behind their stony mugs these burly fellows—one a mottle-faced, ferociously bellied chap with a proboscis the size of a clown horn that had in its day no doubt stared down the barrel of many a tankard and the other, a dead ringer for the Giants’ once menacing linebacker, Sam Huff--do find some levity in me and my predictably youthful transgression. No matter. After hearing me nervously stumble through my tortured explanation, their stone-faced expressions do not change, and they politely invite me to leave the premises. Nice gents that they are, with one on each side of me securely holding an arm with what seems to me perhaps more than the requisite pressure, they escort me to the exit and bid me adieu.

As I am being dismissed I look back over my shoulder. I can see that Alan and Jerry, who have also been sprinkling the crowd below but who by sheer luck are not fingered as culprits, are not in the least chagrined. I see by the looks on their faces that they find some amusement in my premature departure. To add insult to injury, a smattering of applause arises from some spectators who perceive my efforts as anything but charitable.

On the bus ride home I sit next to a passenger listening to the Met game on a transistor radio. The game is by now in the eighth inning. Much to my surprise, the game’s announcer quietly allows that Bunning has not yet surrendered a hit. In hushed tones he mentions that no Met has yet reached base. It seems Bunning is on his way to completing one of the most august feats in baseball. Mr. Bunning is about to pitch a perfect game.

I am sitting attentively next to my neighbor and listening with beating heart to the announcer’s every word. And what am I doing? I am praying to beat the band that one of those hapless Mets will get a hit. Bunning cannot, I assure myself, pitch a perfect game. How, I ask myself, can this happen! Not that I have anything personal against Bunning, who under any other circumstances I would love to pitch a perfect game. But if he succeeds, how will I live down the ignominy of being kicked out of a perfect game? How will I face my friends, who at that moment were basking in the reflected glow of i mmortality? I know exactly what they will do; they will ridicule me mercilessly for my misfortune. I am certain they will happily ascribe my bad luck less to happenstance than to some mental deficiency, some stupidity that I alone own.

My prayers, self-serving as they are, and born in a deep desire to avoid embarrassment, go unanswered. Bunning does it! He accomplishes the totally improbable, the completely unthinkable. He pitches a perfect game. In all the games played in major league baseball’s modern era that begins in 1903, over 150,000 up to Bunning’s masterpiece, only 13 have been perfectly pitched games. Until Bunning’s feat, the last regular season perfect game was pitched 42 years before, in 1922 by an otherwise unremarkable Chicago White Sox hurler named Charlie Robertson. (Don Larsen’s 1956 perfect game, baseball’s most famous perfect game, was pitched in the World Series.) These facts give a perfect game a very special place in baseball history.

There it is. On June 21, 1964, I was ejected from one of the most spectacular events in the history of baseball, and as history reminds us, one of the most astonishing accomplishments by an athlete in any sport. Why do I take note of this? What is so special here, other than the exceptional performance by Jim Bunning? As extraordinary as Bunning’s feat is on that scorching day in June 1964, I am certain I set a record equally as rare (perhaps even more rare) as Bunning’s perfect game.

Baseball, more than any other sport, is a game of numbers, statistics, and records. No other sport records in such fine detail the inner workings of its players, its games, or its history. Players set goals by these numbers. Fans are obsessed with them. Much of baseball’s allure and a good many of its mythologies derive from the numbers that accumulate to define a team’s or a player’s performance. But they serve another purpose. These figures and records are used to define, analyze, or render a picture of a player’s character and life. If Mickey Mantle’s lifetime statistics speak of greatness on the field, they also illustrate a man’s ability to squander his gifts and lead a less than admirable life. In his history of baseball, The National Pastime, John Rossi suggests that baseball’s early popularity in America can be attributed to this compiling of numbers: “Perhaps most importantly, the game benefited from its affinity for statistics, still one of baseball’s greatest strengths when measured against other sports.”

In The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn tells the story of Allan Roth, a team statistician for the Brooklyn Dodgers and among the first wizards of numbers to hold such a position in major league baseball. Roth understood intimately the nature of his job, and that a careful examination of numbers and statistics could help the Dodgers win games, which it did. He also understood on another level the absurdity of these facts. By inventing a game of “Silly Records, a game of real records that had no meaning,” Roth gently poked fun at baseball’s seeming infinitude for mathematically slicing up the game. One day Kahn and Roth were whiling away the time playing the game of “Silly Records.” Kahn asked Roth which right-handed pitcher holds the record for touching his knees the most times in one game. Without missing a beat Roth immediately fired back: “Robin Roberts.” A ridiculous record, but a record nonetheless.

Roger Angell, arguably the dean of living baseball writers, is not oblivious to the role records and statistics play in baseball and the tenacious hold they have on our imagination. His July 1974 article, "Landscape, With Figures" (where Angell sets what must be a baseball writing record when he composes perhaps the longest sentence ever written in a narrative about baseball, 462 words, give or take a few) is devoted to a host of serious and not so serious baseball numbers. In a nod to baseball’s passion for records, he invents his own. One day he hops a plane in New York to watch the Dodgers play a three game set against the Cardinals in Los Angeles. The Dodgers are soundly beaten in the three games, scoring a grand total of three runs. Angell immediately boards a plane for the return trip to New York. On the plane he computes his “run-per-mile average”: “Flying home, I tried to figure out my own stats—4,902 miles flown, round-trip for a total of three Dodger runs observed, or a run-per-mile average of 000612.” No doubt a record of some sort. So many miles for so few runs.

Records are the fertile ground where baseball legend and lore are born. Their comparative nature gives baseball its history, its continuity, and its place in our hearts and national consciousness. That baseball holds records so dear is one reason for relating my own improbable story. Tangential as was my participation in Bunning’s effort, it allows me comfortably to add my name, even if unofficially, to Major League Baseball’s record books. It’s one thing to see a perfect game. But how many fans can say they have been thrown out of a perfect game? It is impossible to know for sure, of course, but odds are in my favor that in the history of baseball, I hold the record (or am at the very least tied) for being thrown out of a perfect game the most times.

©2008 by Carl Schinasi

Carl Schinasi teaches at Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama. A companion piece to this essay, "Jim Bunning's Perfect Game: At the Intersection of Baseball, History, and Self" appears in Baseball, Literature, Culture: Essays 2006-2007. This spring, as usual, he'll be found sitting in the stands at local ballfields eating peanuts and soaking in the sun.

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