Oakland’s Dallas Braden joined one of baseball’s most exclusive clubs yesterday, throwing a perfect game against Tampa Bay.
Baseball and bowling are the only sports that have perfect games. “Perfection” is an odd concept in any sport that puts one side in opposition to another. Is a rout in tennis, or football, or basketball the result of greatness on one side or wretchedness on the other? The answer, usually, is a mix of both. The closest football comes to recognizing perfection is a passer rating of 158.3, a number that mocks the very ideal it measures (and that maximum rating doesn’t require perfection, since you can achieve it with a 77.5 completion percentage).
A 300 game in bowling is too common to be treated with awe on the highest levels of the game – impressive, yes, but hardly a phenomenon. But a perfect game in major-league baseball – 27 up, 27 down – has happened just nineteen times in one hundred and thirty-five years.
The set of perfect games contains a host of oddities and surprises. Of the nineteen games (including Don Larsen’s World Series effort), fourteen were pitched at home and only five on the road. There were nine in baseball’s first hundred years, and ten in the last thirty. Of the ten perfect games pitched since 1980, seven came in games utilizing the DH. Six of the nineteen pitchers are in the Hall of Fame and one is in the U.S. Senate; the Cooperstown total will reach seven when Randy Johnson’s five-year waiting period is over. Only three pitchers have pitched perfect games and won Cy Young Awards : Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax, and Catfish Hunter; only Koufax did both in the same year. The seventeen who have finished their careers averaged 186 wins (166 if you ignore Cy Young’s 511). Four of the pitchers wound up with career records under .500 (Lee Richmond, Charlie Robertson, Larsen, and Len Barker). The best record held by any team when a perfect game was thrown against them was 22-8, .733, for Tampa Bay yesterday morning, giving Braden an instant entry in the perfect-game record book by a wide margin. The previous best was 95-63, .601, for the 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers including their four World Series games before Larsen beat them. For two pitchers – David Cone and Mark Buehrle – the perfecto was their only shutout of the season.
Any perfect game is memorable, but some are more noteworthy than others:
Lee Richmond, June 12, 1880: The first one recorded, in the National League’s fifth season, contained something no other perfect game has had: an outfield assist. Lon Knight, Worcester’s right fielder, threw out a slow-running Cleveland hitter at first base. Five days after Richmond’s gem, John Montgomery Ward threw a perfect game of his own for the National League’s second; the third wouldn’t come for another eighty-four years.
Addie Joss, October 2, 1908: There were six games left in the season when Cleveland’s Joss faced off against Chicago’s Ed Walsh. Cleveland was a half-game out of first place, with Chicago even in the loss column and one game further back. Walsh pitched a great game, striking out fifteen in eight innings, but under pennant-race pressure, Joss retired all twenty-seven hitters for the win. Detroit wound up winning the pennant; Joss pitched two more years, then died of tubercular meningitis in April 1911. A team of All-Stars played a benefit game against Cleveland that July, raising nearly $13,000 for his widow and family.
Charlie Robertson, April 30, 1922: There’s got to be a worst perfect game, and this is probably it. Robertson was making his fourth career start for the White Sox; the Tigers were 4-10, and manager Ty Cobb was batting .111 on the season. After achieving baseball immortality, Robertson posted a 49-80 career record for three teams.
Sandy Koufax, September 9, 1965: Koufax’s gem against the Chicago Cubs took just an hour and forty-three minutes. It helped that the Cubs’ Bob Hendley threw a one-hitter of his own. The only man to reach base all day was Lou Johnson, who walked in the fifth, advanced on a sac bunt, stole third and came home on the catcher’s wild throw. (This was a typical rally for the mid-1960s Dodgers.) Johnson then broke up the double no-hitter with a double in the seventh.
Len Barker, May 15, 1981: Anyone who saw Len Barker throw a pitch at Fenway Park in 1978 that landed halfway up the screen below the press box had to be shocked when he threw a perfect game against the Blue Jays in 1981. He threw just nineteen balls in recording the twenty-seven outs. The game is probably most remembered for the Dallas writer who cracked, “How can it be perfect if it happened in Cleveland?”
Mike Witt, September 30, 1984: Teams like to play quick games on the last day of the season, the ultimate getaway day, but the Texas Rangers took this to an extreme against the Angels, failing to reach base all day and hitting the showers after just an hour and forty-nine minutes. Texas centerfielder Mickey Rivers entered the game – the last of his career – needing to avoid going 0-for-4 or worse to wind up the season with a .300 batting average. As Texas’s leadoff hitter, he was 0-for-3 and standing in the on-deck circle when the game and season ended.
David Cone, July 18, 1999: The only interleague perfect game, pitched by Cone for the Yankees against the Montreal Expos. It was Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium, and Berra caught the ceremonial first pitch from Don Larsen. It was also the only perfect game that included a rain delay, one that lasted thirty-three minutes.
A few final random facts: The thirteenth perfect game came on July 28, 1991 (Dennis Martinez); the fourteen was exactly three years later, July 28, 1994 (Kenny Rogers). There has never been a perfect game in August. Tampa Bay is the first team to face two perfect games in less than a year: Mark Buerhle’s last July and Braden’s on Sunday. There were no perfect games in the 1910’s, ‘30s, ‘40s, or ‘70s; there were four in the 1990s, during baseball’s Steroid Era. Some things defy explanation; they simply are.