Today we remember Len Barker’s perfect game against the Toronto Blue Jays in 1981, the last hitless game tossed by an Indians pitcher. This story was originally published by Bob Toth on May 15, 2019. – BT
Len Barker, getting the sign from Ron Hassey. Ernie Whitt stands in. Wind up, here it comes. Fly ball, center field. Manning coming on, he’s there…he catches it! Len Barker has pitched a no-hitter! A perfect game for Len Barker! The stands erupt, the players go out, Len Barker being surrounded on the field. He has made baseball history here tonight. Len Barker has pitched a perfect ball game. Faces 27 men, retires them all, eleven strikeouts. Len Barker being mobbed on the field, the Cleveland Indians win it, 3-0. – Herb Score’s call of Barker’s perfect game
The Cleveland Indians recorded the last no-hitter and perfect game in team history on May 15, 1981. I may be dating myself a great deal, but I was just a twinkle in an eye when the Indians added another name to the history book with the no-hitter and perfect game.
With the talented group of starting pitchers in the rotation over the last few years (and even last couple of decades), it may be something of a surprise that the Indians have not been able to hold an opposing club hitless over the course of nine innings. Baseball has changed dramatically, with an influx of strikeouts and an emphasis on scoring with one mighty swing of the bat. While on several occasions the Tribe has flirted with history, they have not been able to complete the feat last accomplished when Len Barker, on May 15, 1981, lifted his leg high and tight on a 1-2 pitch to Toronto Blue Jays catcher Ernie Whitt, inducing a fly ball to center field. Rick Manning raced in, arms extended straight out as though he were flying. He raised both arms above his head and he secured the catch before beginning his sprint to the mound with several high hops in celebration of the 27th and final out of Barker’s perfect game.
Twenty-eight teams have celebrated similar monumental pitching feats in the center of the diamond since during my lifetime, with only the San Diego Padres suffering a longer drought of no-hit jubilation than the Tribe – they have yet to complete the feat during the entirety of their time as a Major League organization, dating back to 1969.
Barker’s perfect game was the eighth recognized in the modern era and the first since the introduction of the designated hitter. Two other perfect games were thrown during 19th century games in the infancy of professional baseball (including the first on record on June 12, 1880, when the Cleveland Blues were blanked 1-0 by Lee Richmond and the Worcester Worcesters, a nickname of great creativity). Barker’s came 13 years and one week after the previous one tossed by Catfish Hunter of the Oakland Athletics against the Minnesota Twins on May 8, 1968. Thirteen additional perfect games have been thrown since Barker wrote his legacy, not counting several close calls, such as Armando Galarraga’s “Imperfect game” (when in a game between Cleveland and Detroit on June 2, 2010, first base umpire Jim Joyce ruled the potential 27th and final out Jason Donald safe at first on a play that Galarraga had clearly beaten him to the bag). Former Seattle Mariners starter Felix Hernandez tossed the last in 2012.
Barker’s path to his place among the baseball immortals took him through Texas first, as he was a third round pick by the Rangers in the 1973 draft. Following the 1978 season, he was traded with outfielder Bobby Bonds to the Indians for infielder Larvell Blanks and reliever Jim Kern.
He had not gotten a steady opportunity to start with the Rangers, but that changed when he came to Cleveland. He went 6-6 in his first season with the club in 1979 and followed with an impressive 19-12 season in 1980. He was 8-7 in the strike-shortened 1981 season, posting a 3.91 ERA for the year in 22 games. He was also selected to the American League All-Star team in the months that followed his perfect game, the only trip to the Midsummer Classic in his career. It was fittingly held in Cleveland in August.
His outing was incredible on many fronts. He actually started the cool, damp night at the Stadium quietly, retiring the lineup in order the first time through with six groundouts and three fly balls to center. His offense provided a little support, plating a pair in the first against Toronto’s Luis Leal with an Andre Thornton sacrifice fly that scored Manning after his leadoff single, and a single from Ron Hassey scored Mike Hargrove, who had reached on error.
Barker did not record his first strikeout until the fourth inning, striking out Lloyd Moseby and George Bell back-to-back to end that frame. He blended a fastball that averaged 91 MPH on the night with a sweeping curveball, with Hassey sharing later that the duo went to the big breaking pitch 75% of the time. Barker struck out two batters every inning after that until the fateful ninth, when with a lead increased to 3-0 (courtesy of a Jorge Orta solo shot off of Leal in the bottom of the eighth), Barker got Rick Bosetti to pop out in foul territory. Al Woods pinch-hit for future NBA player Danny Ainge and struck out on three pitches with Barker’s eleventh and final K of the night. Whitt grabbed a bat to hit for Buck Martinez and sent a 1-2 pitch to Manning, who handled the shallow fly with ease for the final out.
“I didn’t even look up when Whitt hit the ball,” Barker said after the game. “I knew Rick had it. He catches 99½% of the stuff hit his way.”
Champagne flowed in the locker room as the first place Indians recorded their second perfect game in more than 72 years.
“I don’t think I saw that one,” Barker joked after the game in quotes from the next day’s Plain Dealer when learning of his place in Indians history alongside Addie Joss‘ perfect game in 1908. “I bet he pitched a hell of a game.”
Barker’s no-hitter was the first in the American League since Bert Blyleven, his former teammate in Texas and then teammate in Cleveland, threw one for the Rangers on September 22, 1977. Of Barker’s 103 pitches on the night, 84 were strikes. All eleven of his strikeouts were swinging and he threw no more than five pitches called balls during a single inning.
“I have never seen a better pitched game,” said Indians manager Dave Garcia after the game.
Barker was at times speechless, or at least at a loss for what to say. He did give thanks for his opportunity, something that he did not take for granted.
“I have to thank the Indians and Dave Garcia for this,” he shared. “They gave me the ball, made me a starter. They stuck with me. In Texas, I ended up in the bullpen. Towards the end, I seldom even took my glove with me down there because I knew that they weren’t going to use me.
“I don’t know what to say. All the plays behind me were outstanding. The big thing was I was able to get my curveball over. I felt good.”
Hassey had a great view of things from behind the plate and shared his take on the outing.
“Everytime he goes out there with a good curveball he’s got the chance for something like this. He was placing it right where I aimed it. I mean, the ball was breaking so much Toronto kept asking to see the ball.”
For Hassey, Barker’s shot caller that night, it would not be his only taste of perfection. Ten years and a couple of months later, he would be behind the plate for the Montreal Expos and would become the only backstop in Major League history to catch two perfect games, doing so in Dennis Martinez’s 2-0 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Officially, the Indians have 14 no-hitters in their 119 years of existence, the eighth-most recorded in Major League history. Given the current drought, that means there was a period of time in the franchise’s first 80 years that they averaged a no-hitter roughly every six seasons. When considering some of the talented pitchers on the staff for the club over much of the last two decades with unquestioned no-hit kind of stuff – Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, etc. – it makes it all the more amazing that the Indians have been unable to finish a no-hitter off in quite some time while the feat still happens inevitably for other clubs a few times each year. The drought has not come without a lack of close calls, including Carrasco coming within one out on July 1, 2015, against the Tampa Bay Rays, and Bauer and the bullpen combining for eight no-hit innings against Houston on April 9 of the same season (when he threw six hitless innings while walking five on 111 pitches before two no-hit innings from relievers Kyle Crockett and Scott Atchison kept the combined no-hitter intact) until Nick Hagadone allowed a solo homer with one out in the bottom of the ninth. Bauer lost another no-hit bid on April 4, 2018, leaving after seven innings before the bullpen lost both the combined no-hit attempt and the shutout in the ninth against Toronto.
The Cleveland franchise was in its eighth season when the club recorded its first no-hitter, but nearly got one two and a half weeks into the inaugural season of the American League serving as a counterpart to the longstanding National League. Earl Moore threw nine no-hit innings on May 9, 1901, in a game between the 4-9 Blues and the 9-4 Chicago White Sox, but he allowed two hits in the tenth, including a leadoff single, and Cleveland lost, 4-2.
On September 18, 1908, Bob Rhoads led the Naps to a 2-1 win over the Boston Red Sox, ending nearly eight full seasons for the team without a no-hitter. They would need just two weeks to add another while charging hard for the pennant, when Addie Joss threw the second perfect game of the modern era in a 1-0 win for the Naps over the Chicago White Sox in a 74-pitch gem in Cleveland on October 2 (Boston’s Cy Young hurled the first at the age of 37 for the Boston Americans against the Philadelphia Athletics in a 3-0 win on May 5, 1904). Joss would get the Sox again on April 20, 1910, during his final Major League season before his tragic death early in 1911.
It would be another nine years before Cleveland would record an official no-hitter and for the first time, it came under the moniker of the Indians. The one recorded by Ray Caldwell on September 10, 1919, certainly was unusual as the pitcher had been struck by lightning in his first start for the Indians just a few weeks before throwing his no-hitter.
Wes Ferrell won a 9-0 decision over the St. Louis Browns on April 29, 1931, earning the distinction of facing and defeating his brother Rick Ferrell’s squad. The 23-year-old pitcher, in his fifth big league season in Cleveland, held his elder sibling and the future Hall of Famer hitless. Even more impressive, Wes outhit the Browns himself, hitting a two-run home run and a two-run double to support his cause.
Bob Feller tallied three during his playing career, beginning with his first on April 16, 1940. With a 1-0 win in Chicago against the White Sox, he threw what remains the only Opening Day no-hitter in Major League history. Six years and two weeks later, he was at it again, defeating the New York Yankees by a 1-0 effort in what he described later as the better of his no-hitters. He would add a final one on July 1, 1951, taking down the Detroit Tigers, 2-1.
A pair of his teammates added their names to the list in 1947 and 1948. Don Black, whose career was marred by struggles with alcohol and ended late in the 1948 season after suffering a brain hemorrhage during an at bat, became the sixth different no-hit pitcher in Cleveland Indians history on July 10, 1947. He defeated the Philadelphia Athletics, 3-0, in a game that he may have been amped up for, as the A’s were the team that had given up on him in October of 1945 before he was purchased by the Indians. Bob Lemon followed that performance less than a year later, no-hitting the Detroit Tigers by a 2-0 final on June 30, 1948, during the Indians’ run to their last title.
It would be nearly 15 years after Feller’s final no-hitter before another Indians hurler added his name to the history books in what was the longest drought in franchise history until the present one. Sonny Siebert blanked the Washington Senators, 2-0, on June 10, 1966, in the hours after promising his wife that he would throw one. Eight years, one month, and nine days later, Dick Bosman’s claim to fame was a little less pleasant, as his own throwing error in the fourth inning was the only blemish on an otherwise perfect stat line in a 4-0 win over the Oakland Athletics. On May 30, 1977, Dennis Eckersley stunned the California Angels in a 1-0 win, throwing a no-hitter with 12 strikeouts in his first start after a 12-inning complete game win over Seattle. He would add a one-hit masterpiece later in the year against the Brewers, giving up just a first inning triple to Cecil Cooper and retiring 24 straight after Jim Wynn reached on error to start the second.
Less than four years later, Barker had his date with destiny.
While the no-hitter drought in Cleveland will eventually come to an end, fans undoubtedly are far more concerned with a certain lenghty championship void enveloping the city since 1948. In the meantime, fans can watch and wonder if any of the present group of pitchers on the Tribe’s staff will one day have his own historic celebration at center stage after accomplishing something that few can boast about. If someone gets close to tasting 27 outs of glory, don’t get caught being the one to jinx it.
Photo: AP Photo/Mark Duncan