Len BarkerJuly 24, 2009
Of the eighteen men in major league history who have thrown a perfect game, four have a lifetime losing record: Lee Richmond (75-100), who threw the first-ever major league perfect game in 1880; Charlie Robertson (49-90), the only White Sox player to hurl a perfect game before Mark Buehrle’s masterpiece yesterday; Don Larsen (81-91), author of the most famous pitching performance in baseball history, his 1956 World Series perfect game; and the fellow shown here, Len Barker (74-76). Barker’s was not the first perfect game of my lifetime, but it was the first one I was aware of. (Catfish Hunter, one of six Hall of Famers to have pitched a perfect game—Monte Ward, Cy Young, Addie Joss, Jim Bunning, and Sandy Koufax are the others; a seventh, Randy Johnson, is a shoo-in for the honor as soon as he’s eligible—was perfect a couple months after I was born.) I can’t give you any specific memories of Barker’s historic performance—I didn’t watch it or it listen to it on the radio (in fact, yesterday was the first time in my life I ever got to follow any part of a perfect game as it happened; after overhearing a co-worker say to another co-worker, “Buerhle is perfect through seven,” I checked the box score on my computer and then went outside to listen to the bottom of the ninth on my XM radio as I stared out at the cars in the parking lot and tried to imagine DeWayne Wise’s catch in my head). But I do know that my perception of Barker changed.
To that point, because of this card, I thought of Barker as a smiling, laid-back good old boy who didn’t worry too much that he didn’t have a lot to show for his apparently prodigious talent, which chiefly resided in, as the back of the card related, “a fastball . . . clocked at 96 Miles-Per-Hour.” I believed that his perfect game changed all this. Though I certainly knew about Don Larsen’s perfect game, I didn’t know he and two others who had performed the feat before Barker had arrived at perfection amid otherwise unmemorable careers of just a few ups and even more downs. I thought a person who pitched a perfect game became someone with a lasting purchase on perfection. By then I knew the story of Sandy Koufax, his early struggles giving way to astounding dominance, and while I understood this kind of a turnaround was probably not going to happen to Len Barker I assumed he’d provide some version of the tale of the young, wild fireballer learning to harness his powers.
In fact, he already seemed to be in the midst of that transformation when he retired all 27 Toronto Blue Jays hitters in a row that day in the spring of 1981—the year before, he’d broken through with a his first good season, going 19 and 12 and leading the league in strikeouts. He led the league in strikeouts the year of his perfect game, and in the year after that he posted another good won-loss record of 15-11. But that was about as far as it went; he persisted for four more seasons, winning 21 games and losing 37. In his final game, a start against the Red Sox, he walked four and allowed two hits, including a home run, and was lifted in the third inning. It was an improvement over his second to last game, a start in which he had to be sent to the showers in the first inning without recording a single out. Everyone can relate to that kind of a day. But a perfect day? Len Barker and just seventeen others are the only ones who would know anything about something like that.
(Bonus coverage: check out this link for a video of the Philadelphia Phillies’ clubhouse, of all places, reacting to DeWayne Wise’s catch.)