I don’t think it’s an accident that baseball is widely regarded as “America’s favorite pastime,” or the country’s most loved spectator sport. While all professional team sports feature a competition between two teams utilizing their skills within the rules of the game to outscore their opponent, the main appeal of football and ice hockey (like the individual sport of boxing) rests on the application of brutality to inflict pain and injury on the members of the opposing team, and the action in basketball is so frenetic, with the members of both teams running up and down the court, that the line between offensive and defensive maneuvers tends to get blurred.
The civilized, measured pace of baseball, on the other hand, involves the two teams taking turns, with the offensive team at bat attempting to score runs and the defensive team in the field endeavoring to prevent it. As a result, baseball players seem more dignified than the participants in other sports, as if their play is solely a manifestation of their desire to achieve perfection.
As you probably know, I myself was a pitcher, the position that is the first line of defense in preventing the other team from scoring runs. I was born in Indiana in August of 1929, a couple of months before the stock market crash which initiated the Great Depression. I became interested in baseball as a pitcher in high school, and I was recruited by a scout for the old St. Louis Browns in 1953, but I was traded to the New York Yankees in 1955, where I was a pitcher for 5 years. All told, I played Major League baseball for 14 seasons until I retired in 1967.
In characterizing the battle between pitchers and hitters, we can observe a fundamental asymmetry in these two types of skill. The categories that measure success in hitting the baseball, such as batting averages or the numbers and types of hits, especially home runs, is essentially open-ended – the higher the better. In contrast, pitchers face a structural limit of zero in their measures of performance, such as a pitcher’s earned run average, the number of runs allowed, or the number of hits allowed. For pitchers, there is a natural pyramid of success in confining the efforts of batters.
A pitcher who allows no runs in a game, for instance, is said to pitch a shutout; more restrictive than a shutout, though, is a no-hitter, where a pitcher doesn’t permit the opposing team a single hit, so that only through a walk, being hit by a pitch, or through a fielding error can any hitter reach base. Finally, a special case of a no- hitter is a perfect game, where no member of the opposing team can reach base for any reason, so that in the standard 9-inning game, the 27 players who come to the plate are all retired in order.
To date, there have only been 21 perfect games in the modern era (after 1900 when all the regulations that comprise the game as we know it today became official), so you can see that such an achievement is very rare. But on October 8, 1956, I became only the fourth pitcher in history to accomplish this feat and the first in 34 years. Moreover, I pitched my perfect game against the National League champion Brooklyn Dodgers in the fifth game of the World Series, something no one else has ever done before or since, so you might say I occupy a unique place in the annals of baseball history.
On the other hand, over the course of my career, I was only an average pitcher (notice, I don’t use the adjective “mediocre’” to characterize my overall performance, since, in that one moment in 1956, I possessed the rare combination of skill and luck to achieve something that no one else has ever been able to duplicate.) But, as evidence of my ordinary credentials, I compiled an Earned Run Average or the number of runs allowed not due to fielding errors per 9-inning game( ERA), of only 3.78; I was the winning pitcher in 81 games, but I was the losing pitcher in 91, so my winning percentage was below .500; and on the other statistic used to quantify a pitcher’s effectiveness, the number of strikeouts recorded, I registered 849 – a little more than 65 per season.
Sometime after the start of what was to become the Great Depression, the Chairman of the National Baseball Commission dreamed up an idea to sustain interest in the sport in the face of the difficult economic conditions Americans were experiencing. He proposed the creation of a National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, the legendary town where Abner Doubleday first conceived the rules for the game of baseball. The plan was that every year those players whose extraordinary achievements on the field were deemed worthy of recognition would be inducted into this elite group.
In its first year of operation, 1936, the Commission voted to admit 5 players– 3 hitters and 2 pitchers – to this coveted honor. The 3 batters were Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees, the holder of the Home Run records for a single season (60 in 1927) and career(714); Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers, who compiled a lifetime batting average of .366, and who registered averages over .400 in 3 separate years (1911, 1912, and 1921); and Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who played all 8 fielding positions and set records for the number of lifetime hits (3420) and Runs Batted In (1732 RBIs).
The two pitchers inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1936 were Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators, who achieved a spectacular lifetime ERA of 2.17, but was most admired for his record-setting 3509 strikeouts; and Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants, who was the winning pitcher in 373 games during his career, while suffering only 30 losses.
The following year, 1937, there were a number of significant inductees, but 2 in particular stand out: Tris Speaker, the centerfielder for the Boston Red Sox and later the Cleveland Indians and a contemporary of Ty Cobb, was known for his instinctive fielding prowess and setting the record for runs scored (1882); and Cy Young, a pitcher with the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox, who set the record for the number of career victories (511), in one of which, he pitched a perfect game (in 1904.)
In later years, there were also important Hall of Fame inductions: in 1939, an inductee was Lou Gehrig, the stalwart first baseman for the New York Yankees, who followed Babe Ruth in the Yankees batting order and who had many batting achievements, but was best known for playing in 2130 consecutive games, a record which ended because of the progress of his ALS, now known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” In 1955, Joe DiMaggio, also of the New York Yankees, with many batting and fielding accomplishments, set the record for longest consecutive hitting streak (56 games in 1941.)
Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, who was inducted in 1966, was the last .400 hitter (.406 in 1941) and had 2654 career hits despite not playing for 5 years while serving as a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War. And Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals, inducted in 1969, produced 3630 hits, including 475 home runs.
I only mention these examples of the level of players that have qualified for induction into the Hall of Fame because I am occasionally asked why, as the only player to ever pitch a perfect game in the World Series, I have not been admitted to this august group. Well, as I have suggested, my career, apart from that single shining achievement, was pretty unexceptional. But it does pose the question of what is the necessary level of greatness to gain admittance, or, put another way, can one exceptional glimmer of greatness ever be sufficient to offset an otherwise-ordinary career?
After all, other players who came after me and who pitched perfect games are included in the Hall of Fame: Jim Bunning of the Philadelphia Phillies accomplished the feat in 1964 and was inducted in 1996; Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers executed his perfect game in 1965 and was admitted in 1972; and Catfish Hunter of the Oakland Athletics pitched a perfect game in 1968 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987. Even the catcher who caught for me in my perfect game, Yogi Berra, was inducted in 1972. When he considers these facts, a guy could get a real persecution complex!
I also wanted to add that questionable decisions that serve to exclude singular achievements from the Hall of Fame also extend to hitters. In my career with the Yankees, I happened to overlap with Roger Maris, who played 12 seasons from 1957 to 1968, including 5 with the Yankees from 1960 to 1966. In 1961, he was bearing down on Babe Ruth’s single season home run record of 60, and managed to hit his 61st on the last day of the season.
Nevertheless, purists pointed out that Ruth hit his 60 during the 154 game season that existed at the time, while when Roger hit 61, a season’s length had been increased to 162 games, and so Roger’s name appears in the record book with an asterisk. But asterisk or not, his 61 home runs remains the single season record. Others who subsequently hit more were exposed for achieving their home runs fraudulently through the use of performance-enhancing drugs and were consequently not recognized. Like me, though, Roger’s one achievement of greatness was hidden in an otherwise unexceptional career, with a .260 lifetime batting average and a career total of only 275 home runs.
But is it reasonable that his teammate Micky Mantle, who was also chasing Ruth’s record in that 1961 season but came up short with only 54 home runs, should be in the Hall of Fame, or that Hank Aaron, who finally broke Ruth’s other record of 714 career home runs, should be included as well?
It might appear counterintuitive coming from someone who has been hinting that baseball’s current standards for defining greatness might be too strict, but I would like to suggest that some of the requirements codified in certain definitions serve to make success attainable too easily. Two examples are relevant to us pitchers:
One that affects the definition of the Earned Run Average measure is the observation that a low ERA does not discriminate whether it is achieved against a first place team or a last place team. Such a flaw ignores the reality that achieving a low ERA against good hitters is much more difficult than it is against poor ones, just a as pitching a no-hitter is a much more meaningful accomplishment against a successful team than against a team accustomed to losing. It could also affect those no-hitters that are perfect games, possibly disqualifying some that were pitched against weak opponents. Of course, in my case, since I was pitching against the National League Champion team, the status of my perfect game would be unaffected by such a change.
Accordingly, I would propose the adoption of a modified calculation to measure a pitcher’s success in limiting earned runs – the Opponent Strength-Adjusted Earned Run Average, OSAERA. For each pitcher’s appearance, his ERA would be adjusted up or down as a function of the opposing team’s standing, reflected in its Won-Lost record This modification would provide a much more accurate measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness.
Another proposal that is close to my heart is just in the definition of what constitutes a perfect game. The existing definition makes only a minor distinction between a no-hitter and a perfect game, as if to say, “a perfect game is a no-hitter not pitched by a buffoon.” But if the true meaning of a perfect game is to connote a pitching performance which is truly exceptional, it should not rest on such technical differences. I suggest a definition that makes a qualitative leap from a no-hitter to a perfect game, such as a perfect game is a no-hitter in which all the opposing players are retired by strikeouts. Such an enhancement would not only improve the stature of perfect games, but it would also clarify the underlying significance of no-hitters and emphasize the degree to which they are important achievements in their own right.
Batters have only a fraction of a second to decide whether they intend to swing at the ball being thrown to them at over 100 mph. Pitchers, on the other hand, usually have the luxury of communicating with their catchers through the interplay of finger signals and head nods to plan the appropriate type of pitch for each batter. They basically have two choices: pitches of speed, as represented by the fast ball and pitches of deception, best delivered through the curve ball.
The usual assumption is that a good pitcher will utilize the element of surprise by making his choices unpredictable, but the achievement of perfection shouldn’t depend on such a strategy. Now, the day I pitched my perfect game, I relied almost exclusively on my fastball, and I observed that nothing can be more intimidating for a batter than to be forced to absorb this message: “Even though you know in advance what pitch to expect from me, it will be so fast that, no matter what you do, you still won’t be able to hit it.”