Century later, they're still taking aim at Richmond's perfect target

Phil Jackman

July 08, 1991|By Phil Jackman

If memory serves, it was a sunny day at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., the Orioles were playing the Mets and out of the rightfield bullpen ambled this tall, rangy kid to mop up a spring training game.

For no apparent reason, a press guide was consulted and its revelations ordered one and all to sit up and take notice. It seems the just turned 20-year-old lad had fanned 272 batters in just 183 innings while going 17-2 at Greenville the previous season. At the same time, he had walked 127.

Yes, it was pre-historic Nolan Ryan, and this picture popped up last night as the already legendary pitcher threatened yet

another hitless performance, this one a perfect game. A crowd gathered in front of the office TV set. I mean, what's left to wish for a pitcher who has everything but an "el perfecto?"

First, there was a walk, then Noley grooved an 0-and-2 pitch and Dave Winfield of the Angels sent a sturdy single into centerfield. Oh well, maybe next time, kid.

But what of this perfect game business? What do we know of it other than what we recall or have heard or read about the famed Don Larsen effort in the 1956 World Series?

The year was 1880, the majors were in just their fifth season under the title National League and a diminutive collegian by the name of Lee Richmond was pulling double duty on the mound, pitching for both Brown University and the Worcester (Mass.) Brown Stockings. Seems Lee had this thing about the color brown.

Anyway, on June 12, Richmond, who was to finish with 32 wins, befuddled the Cleveland team so completely that nary a runner reached base. We might add here that Cleveland's involvement reaffirms the old saying about the more things change the more they remain the same.

There are a couple of things that make the Grand Old Game's first perfect game grist for one of those old Bill Stern radio spots.

First, back a century and decade ago, the guy pitching took up a position 45 feet from home plate. Imagine Roger Clemens peering in for the sign from such a distance. No thanks, says John Shelby.

Fortunately, for the batter, the pitcher had to deliver the ball underhanded with the catcher sufficiently removed to catch the offering on one bounce. It is assumed the home plate umpire took up a position just inside the 12-mile reef.

Amazingly, the visitors were unable to strike a blow safely or "coax a pass," as they say in the broadcast booth.

Second, there was the whereabouts and the alleged activities engaged in by Richmond prior to his stroll into diamond immortality.

"Legend has it that Richmond pitched his 1-0 perfect game the same day he was graduated from Brown," writes baseball historian Clif Garboden. Providence is about 45 miles from Worcester as the train chugs and Lee, as one story goes, grabbed his sheepskin and beat a hasty retreat for the Massachusetts city.

Nay, nay, a thousand times nay, Garboden insists. His investigation reveals that as is often the case around graduation time, Richmond became involved in a party that only ended when a bunch of the revelers repaired to the field for a pick-up game commencing at 5 a.m.

It must have been a monumental struggle, because the around-the-clock pitcher just was able to make a mid-day train to the game site.

Some pitchers say they like to toil on short rest once in awhile, makes their ball move more -- but this was ridiculous.

Lee Richmond ended up toiling 590 innings for the fifth-place Worcester nine that season, spacing 543 hits. He had five shutouts among his 32 victories, which were matched by 32 losses. Teams then utilized just two pitchers -- remember, they were tossing the ball plateward underhand, a guy who pitched all the time and a backup in case of famine, flood or other unnatural disaster. Cleveland's pitcher (and manager) Jim McCormick was an ironman, his and the team's record of 47-37 being a match.

Just five days after Richmond's perfecto, a Hall of Fame pitcher-infielder-manager named Monte Ward did likewise for Providence against Buffalo. But it was 24 more years before the third of what is arguably a total of 13 all-time perfect games. Ironically, Cy Young's blanking of Philadelphia for Boston in 1904 occurred on Lee Richmond's birthday, May 5.

Richmond had a six-year career, going 75-100 as a pitcher and supporting a .270 batting average. Besides registering the game's first perfect game, he is "credited" with surrendering its first grand slam in addition to perfecting the curveball and change of pace, which no doubt led to his becoming the first big-salaried player ($2,400).

He was on the first Hall of Fame ballot in 1936 when the selectors went for people named Ruth, Cobb, Mathewson, Wagner and Johnson, not college boys picking up a few bucks on the side. He's got something Nolan Ryan hasn't got, though.

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