Baseball's Perfect Game: A Rare Feat

27 up, 27 down. The reality is that every baseball pitcher who takes the mound strives for the perfect game. Granted, any pitcher will tell you they want to pitch well enough to allow their team to win, but the goal is to retire every batter you face.  So with Phillip Humber of the Chicago White Sox having thrown a perfect game just a month ago, I thought it might be interesting to analyze this incredible feat, and look at all the variables that go into it.

It’s remarkable that over 350,000 Major League Baseball games have been played in the past 136 years, yet there have only been twenty one perfect games. This makes it one of the rarest achievements in all of baseball, being bested only by the unassisted triple play and four home run game. What makes the perfect game unique, however, even from a basic no-hitter, is the fact that it’s a team effort. It isn’t only on the pitcher to achieve perfection by not giving up a hit, walk, or hitting a batter. His team must field all of their opportunities cleanly as well, because even an error can ruin a pitcher’s perfect game. So when we see the pitcher being mobbed at the mound after he throws a perfect game by his teammates, there truly is reason for everyone to celebrate; they were all a part of the accomplishment.

Another interesting part of the history of perfect games is the lack of run support many of the pitchers who have thrown them have received. Many of these feats have been accomplished with only one or two runs of support. When Sandy Koufax pitched his perfect game in 1965, his counterpart on the Cubs, Bob Hendley held a no-hitter through the seventh inning, and the Dodgers only run in the game ended up being unearned. And while this type of pitching duel has not been the norm, one or two lone unearned runs have not been uncommon as the deciding factors in perfect games. Whether or not the lack of run support has been a motivating factor in the eventual outcome can be debated, but it stands to reason that if the game is still in doubt, you will continue to push yourself as hard as you can, thus making a perfect game more likely.

I also find it fascinating to look at the complete randomness of the occurrence of perfect games. Looking at the list I have posted below, you can see the timeline with which they have occurred over the years. Note that in 1880 two occurred within five days of each other. Likewise, in 2009 two were thrown within twenty days of each other – and if you include Armando Gallaraga’s gem where the umpire got the final out at first base incorrect, there would have been three within a span of twenty four days that year. By contrast, there have been spans of decades where none have been thrown. In 1880, two were thrown within five days of each other, but then there wasn’t another one for twenty four years. Likewise, Charlie Robertson threw a perfect game in 1922, and we didn’t see another one until Don Larsen did it in the 1956 World Series, thirty four years later. It’s unexplainable, completely random, and utterly fascinating.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that the men who have thrown perfect games are generally regarded as quality Major League pitchers. There are several Hall of Famers on the list, including Cy Young, Addie Joss, Sandy Koufax, Jim Bunning, and Catfish Hunter. But even those who were not Hall of Famers were generally considered to be solid pitchers in their day. I’m thinking of pitchers like Len Barker, Tom Browning, David Cone, Mike Witt, and Dennis Martinez, among others. Only a handful of the twenty one have been guys who came out of nowhere to pitch a perfect game, and then became completely irrelevant. The aforementioned Charlie Robertson fits in to this category, as does Don Larsen. Larsen is well known, mostly because his perfect game was thrown in the World Series, but other than that, his career didn’t amount to much. And while Dallas Braden is still young, it’s hard to see his career taking off anytime soon. The jury is still out on Phillip Humber.

What does this tell us? Throwing a perfect game is REALLY hard to do, and you have to have the repertoire to be able to pull it off. No-hitters are not entirely uncommon, and there have been many pedestrian pitchers who have achieved a no-hitter while allowing a slew of base runners. A.J. Burnett comes to mind as someone who threw a no-hitter while walking nine, and getting only half his pitches over for strikes. In contrast, you can’t be sloppy if you want to pitch a perfect game.  You not only need the repertoire of pitches, but they have to be on, and you have to have pinpoint control. A little luck doesn’t hurt either. Some of the best pitchers the game has ever seen never threw perfect games. Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, and Warren Spahn come to mind. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have the “stuff” to pull it off. In fact, I’m sure there were many days where those guys could have pitched a perfect game if the ball had bounced their way. Such is the mystery and randomness of baseball, and sports in general.

One other fun fact – no pitcher has thrown more than one perfect game, but Ron Hassey had the privilege (and luck?) to catch two of them, having caugh Len Barker’s in 1981 and Dennis Martinez’s in 1991.

Check out these two books below which detail the perfect games which have been thrown in the history of Major League Baseball. James Buckley’s book is a new, updated version which was published this year, (although it doesn’t include Humber’s game), while Coffey’s book does not include any of the games after 1999. Both books are excellent, as they walk you through each game, and give the background of each man who did it. Also of interest are the sections that deal with near perfect games, which give you an idea of how hard it can be to seal the deal, and how bad luck and human error can ruin perfection. Farther below is a list of the 21 perfect games in the history of Major League Baseball. Two were thrown before the modern era, when the rules were somewhat different from the modern game. Sometimes these two are not included on the list, but I’ve decided to include them in mine.

 

Perfect: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Twenty Perfect Games by James Buckley Jr.

 

 

 

 

 

27 Men Out: Baseball’s Perfect Games – by Michael Coffey

 

 

 

The 21 Perfect Games in Major League Baseball History:

  • June 12, 1880 – Lee Richmond – Worcester Ruby Legs – 1-0 over the Cleveland Blues
  • June 17, 1880 – John Montgomery Ward – Providence Grays – 5-0 over the Buffalo Bisons
  • May 5, 1904 – Cy Young – Boston Americans – 3-0 over the Philadelphia A’s
  • October 2, 1908 – Addie Joss – Cleveland Naps – 1-0 over the Chicago White Sox
  • April 30, 1922 – Charlie Robertson – Chicago White Sox – 2-0 over the Detroit Tigers
  • October 8, 1956 – Don Larsen – New York Yankees – 2-0 over the Brooklyn Dodgers
  • June 21, 1964 – Jim Bunning – Philadelphia Phillies – 6-0 over the New York Mets
  • September 9, 1965 – Sandy Koufax – Los Angeles Dodgers – 1-0 over the Chicago Cubs
  • May 8, 1968 – Jim “Catfish” Hunter – Oakland A’s – 4-0 over the Minnesota Twins
  • May 15, 1981 – Len Barker – Cleveland Indians – 3-0 over the Toronto Blue Jays
  • September 30, 1984 – Mike Witt – California Angels – 1-0 over the Texas Rangers
  • September 16, 1988 – Tom Browning – Cincinnati Reds – 1-0 over the Los Angeles Dodgers
  • July 28, 1991 – Dennis Martinez – Montreal Expos – 2-0 over the Los Angeles Dodgers
  • July 28, 1994 – Kenny Rogers – Texas Rangers – 4-0 over the California Angels
  • May 17, 1998 – David Wells – New York Yankees – 4-0 over the Minnesota Twins
  • July 18, 1999 – David Cone – New York Yankees – 6-0 over the Montreal Expos
  • May 18, 2004 – Randy Johnson – Arizona Diamondbacks – 2-0 over the Atlanta Braves
  • July 23, 2009 – Mark Buehrle – Chicago White Sox – 5-0 over the Tampa Bay Rays
  • May 9, 2010 – Dallas Braden – Oakland A’s – 4-0 over the Tampa Bay Rays
  • May 29, 2010 – Roy Halladay – Philadelphia Phillies – 1-0 over the Florida Marlins
  • April 21, 2012 – Phillip Humber – Chicago White Sox – 4-0 over the Seattle Mariners
  • Brian Herder

    Nice post, Nate. In my mind no single game accomplishment in sports holds the imagination like the perfect game, for all the reasons you mentioned. It’s interesting that throwing a perfect game more or less requires both a lot of talent and a lot of luck. One of my favorite perfect game footnotes is the Ernie Shore game on June 23rd, 1917. The Red Sox’ Babe Ruth walked the first batter, got ejected, and then Shore came in, threw out the first baserunner and proceeded to retire the next twenty-six batters for a flawless 4-0 win. But it’s not considered an official perfect game in the record books because he didn’t start and retire all 27 batters.

    Since I was a kid my baseball wild dream scenario has always been to see dueling perfect games going into extra innings. Possible, but too freakishly unlikely to ever see it.

  • Nate

    I agree with you about the Ernie Shore game, Brian. That game is talked about in the Buckley book I have in the post. Then of course there is the Harvey Haddix game where Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings before eventually losing because his team couldn’t score any runs for him. If you’re interested in perfect games you should definitely check out the books I talk about in the post. Both are excellent and recommended reading for anyone interested in the perfect game.