'Imperfect games,' Part 2

Second in a series of posts


Here is an unlikely trio of pitchers:

Walter Johnson

Mark Buehrle

Frank Hiller

They share a distinction among all 7,022 pitchers who have started a Major League game since 1901, first year of the Modern Era.

Each completed 2 games in which they allowed at least 1 runner to reach base, yet faced the minimum of 27 batters.

Let's call them "imperfect games," for short.

72 other men have turned the trick once during the past 122 seasons, for a total of 75 -- barely more than 1 percent of all starting pitchers!

Among the 3 who did it twice, Hiller clearly is the answer to, "Which of these is not like the other?"



In his brilliant, 21-season career, all with the Senators, Johnson compiled an ERA of 2.17 while winning 417 games, second only to Cy Young's 511. No one else has won more than 373.

Johnson reached 20 wins 12 times, 10 of them in a row, during which he averaged 26.5 per year, with a high of 36 and fewer than 23 only once.

He led both leagues in earned run average 4 times and the American League 1 other season.

He was the big league leader in strikeouts 7 times and the AL leader 5 more.

His 110 shutouts are the most by any pitcher ever.

Is it any wonder he was among the first 5 players selected for the Hall of Fame, along with Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner?


Johnson pitched in 802 games, starting 666.

95 years after his final game, in 1927, he still ranks 11th in starts, between Tom Glavine (682) and Warren Spahn (665).

The record is 773, by Nolan Ryan. Don Sutton started 756; Greg Maddux, 740; and Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton, Roger Clemens and Tommy John all made at least 700 starts -- John, 700 on the nose.



Buehrle finished his 16-year career in 2015 having made 493 starts, 42nd most, just behind Mickey Lolich's 496 and just ahead of David Wells' 489.

38 of those in front of Buehrle started at least 500 times, with Joe Niekro at exactly that number. Bob Friend and Burleigh Grimes wound up at 497.

Buehrle retired with a record of 214-160 and an ERA of 3.81. He won 19 games once, in 2002, the third of his 12 years with the White Sox. Then he won between 12 and 16 games in all but 1 of his 16 later seasons. From 2009-12, he won exactly 13 each year. He won 12 in 2013, then 13 again in 2014, before earning 15 wins in his final season at age 36.

Besides his 2 imperfect games, Buehrle achieved perfection on July 23, 2009, when he retired all 27 Rays at US Cellular Field in Chicago. Center fielder DeWayne Wise made a spectacular leaping catch at the wall to start the ninth inning. Buehrle then got a strikeout and a grounder to short to complete his masterpiece.



And then there is Hiller.

The righthander broke in with the Yankees in 1946, at age 25, starting once and relieving twice.

He spent 1947 in the minors, then returned to appear in 22 games in 1948, of which only 5 were starts.

He pitched in relief 4 games early in 1949, gave up 5 runs in 7.2 innings, and was demoted yet again.

On Feb. 10, 1950, the Yankees sold Hiller to the Cubs.

He started 38 games for them that year and the next, and relieved in 24 more.

He was 12-5 in 1950, with a 3.53 ERA, while completing 9 of 17 starts, including 2 shutouts.

But in 1951, he slumped to 6-12, 4.84, with 6 complete games in 21 starts, among them 2 more shutouts.


On the third day of 1952, the Cubs swapped Hiller to the Reds, for Willie Ramsdell, who had lost 17 games in 1951, most by any pitcher in either league.

In 1952, Ramsdell went 2-3, 2.42, in 19 games for the Cubs, starting 4 of them. He pitched for 2 more years in the minors before retiring at age 36.

Hiller, meanwhile, went 5-8, 4.63, for the Reds in 1952, then 2-1, 6.15, for the Giants in 1953. He spent the next year in the Pacific Coast League, then called it quits. He was 33.


During his 7 big league seasons, Hiller's record was 30-32. His ERA was 4.42; his ERA+, 92.

He took part in 138 games, but started only 60 -- 91 percent fewer than Johnson's 666; 88 percent fewer than Buehrle's 493.

Yet he, too, faced 27 batters twice, the same as they did.



Some additional numbers underscore the incongruity of Hiller's accomplishment.

It takes 145 starts, nearly 2.5 times Hiller's total, to rank among the top 1,000 in big league history.

1,367 pitchers, more than 1 of every 5, have started at least 100 times.

Hiller, with 60, is tied for 1,937th with 21 others, 2 of whom were active in 2022: Jose Urquidy of the Astros and Triston McKenzie of the Guardians.

The last to retire after 60 starts was Boof Bonser, who pitched for the Red Sox, Twins and Athletics in 2006-10.


Hiller is the most recent of 5 pitchers with exactly 60 starts who spent part of their careers with the Cubs.

Eddie Stack, a Chicago native, made his final 8 starts as a Cub in 1913-14. He had spent 2 years with the Phillies and 1-plus with the Superbas, today's Dodgers.

Wayland Dean did not start either of his 2 games with the Cubs in 1927. He had previously pitched for the Giants and Phillies.

Lynn Nelson was a rookie with the Cubs in 1930, when he started just 3 of 37 games. He made 4 more starts in 26 games in 1933-34, then 53 for the Athletics in 1937-40.

Vern Olsen relieved 4 times in his debut season, 1939, then started 20, 23 and 17 games in 1940-42, while relieving in a total of 43. He served in the military the next 3 years, then pitched only 5 times in relief in 1946, his final season at any level.



Johnson's first imperfect game came on June 10, 1913, in a 3-0 win at home over the Tigers. He gave up 2 hits and walked 1, but the Senators made 3 double plays, none of them conventional: 6-3-5, when the runner tried to go from third to first; 1-3-4-5-2, when a second runner succeeded, then tried to reach home after the ball briefly escaped the third baseman; and 7-6-3.

On Sept. 14, 1921, at home against the Browns, Johnson allowed 2 singles to Jack Tobin, at the top of the St. Louis lineup, and 1 to Frank Ellerbe, who batted second.

Johnson picked Tobin off after 1 of the hits.

In the fourth inning, after Tobin and Ellerbe singled, George Sisler lined a ball to shortstop Donnie Bush, who caught it and threw it to second baseman Bucky Harris. He stepped on second and fired the ball to first baseman Joe Judge for a triple play.


The Senators' 1-0 victory was the 21st imperfect game of the Modern Era.

There were just 9 more between May 7, 1922, and Aug. 31, 1948, including ones by Dazzy Vance and Carl Hubbell.

Then there were none for nearly 2 years, until Aug. 19, 1950, when Art Houtteman of the Tigers did it, allowing 1 hit and 2 walks while beating the visiting Browns, 6-0.

One month later, Hiller joined the fraternity.



The Cubs arrived in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 1950, on a 4-game winning streak, having won twice at New York and twice at Brooklyn from Friday through Monday.

Before that, they had lost 17 of 21, including 11 of 13 in 4 previous cities. They had been swept in 4 games at Cincinnati, back-to-back doubleheaders.

So, despite their recent turnaround, the Cubs were 60-83, more in seventh place, 28 games behind the league-leading Phillies (87-54), who owned a season-high 7.5-game cushion over their nearest rival, the Braves (78-60).


Hiller took a 10-5 record into the game, played under the lights at Shibe Park. He had started only 3 of his first 25 games before becoming a regular in the rotation on July 31. Beginning that day, he won 6 straight starts in which he fashioned a 2.50 ERA in 54 innings.

12 of those innings had come in a complete games at home against the Reds on Aug. 16. He faced 52 batters that day, nearly twice the minimum number in 9 innings.

But Hiller had faltered of late. His winning streak was snapped when he surrendered 6 runs, 5 earned, in 5 innings against the Dodgers on Aug. 29. He gave up 4 in a 7-inning no decision 5 days later, then 7, 3 earned, while struggling through 8 innings of a loss.

Hiller faced 44 batters in that game, at St. Louis on Sept. 6. His next time out, 8 days later at Boston, he lasted for only 16, departing after 4 innings in which he had yielded 4 runs and was charged with a third straight defeat.


Hiller's opponent at Philadelphia was the Phillies' ace, 23-year-old Robin Roberts, who was 19-8. He had been an All-Star for the first time that season, and would be honored again each of the next 6. During those years, Roberts went 157-96, with a 3.13 ERA. He pitched 2,235 innings in 296 games, starting 269, completing 183 and posting 25 shutouts.

Roberts' bid for a 20th win no doubt lured many of the 20,404 to the aging park.

But it was Hiller who stole the show.


He set down the first 12 Phillies, on 7 groundouts, 4 strikeouts and a line fly to right field.

Roberts held the Cubs hitless until 1 out in the fourth, when Carmen Mauro laid down a bunt and reached second on a wild throw by the third baseman. But the next batter hit a sinking liner to center, which the outfielder caught and threw to second, doubling off Mauro.

Hank Sauer led off the Cubs' fifth with a home run.

Jackie Mayo's 1-out single in the fifth ended Hiller's dream of a perfect game. Granny Hamner then lined to shortstop Roy Smalley, who fired to first baseman Preston Ward in time to double off Mayo.

3 grounders, the last by Roberts, took care of the sixth.

A strikeout and 2 grounders followed in the seventh.

With 2 down in the eighth, Hamner singled. He tried to steal second, where a hit might enable him to tie the score, but he catcher Carl Sawatski's throw beat him easily and he eventually was tagged out in a rundown, second baseman Wayne Terwilliger to Ward and back to Terwilliger.

The ninth began with a fly to right and a grounder to short. Stan Lopata then pinch hit for Roberts and struck out, completing Hiller's imperfect game: 2 hits, no walks, 5 strikeouts.

From start to finish, it took just 1 hour, 35 minutes.



The Phillies beat the Cubs the next day, but won only 2 of their next 5, then dropped 5 in a row, trimming their lead to a single game over the Dodgers, whom they played on the final day of the season at Brooklyn.

The Phillies got a run in the top of the sixth.

Roberts gave up a 2-out solo shot in the bottom.

In the 10th, with the score still 1-1, Dick Sisler of the Phillies slammed a 3-run homer. Roberts pitched a 1-2-3 inning and the Phillies won the pennant, their first since 1915.


Hiller's imperfect game had lifted the Cubs to sixth place. Their loss the next day made their seventh again, and that's where they finished, at 64-89-1, 26.5 games behind the Phillies, 2 behind the Reds (66-87-1) and 7 ahead of the last-place Pirates (57-96-1).

Hiller made 2 subsequent starts, a complete-game, 3-run, 3-hit win over the Cardinals in which he faced 36 batters, and an 8-inning, 2-runs, 6-hit no decision at St. Louis on the last season's final day, when the Cubs won, 3-2, in 11 innings.


TOMORROW: Hiller's second imperfect game, and more

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