May 15, 1981 – Len Barker’s Perfect Game
If you start a conversation about Indians history–at a barbecue, a bar, a birthday party–someone will tell you they were at Len Barker’s perfect game. The odds of this being the truth are exceptionally low, given that only 7,290 fans were in attendance for this Friday night contest against the expansion Blue Jays.
Nine days earlier, Bert Blyleven and the Indians took a no-hitter into the ninth inning against the Blue Jays in Exhibition Stadium. The newly-formed Blue Jays had a team batting average of .218 heading into Friday’s game.
Temperatures dipped into the 40s, and a misty rain was blowing in off Lake Erie.
On the first play of the game Alfredo Griffin hit a slow roller behind the mound. Shortstop Tom Veryzer fielded it and threw to first for one of the toughest outs of the game.
In the bottom of the first, Rick Manning led off with a single to left field. Jorge Orta flied out to shortstop. Mike Hargrove got on board due to an error by the first baseman, advancing Manning to third. Andre Thornton’s sacrifice fly to center scored Manning and sent Hargrove to second. Catcher Ron Hassey stepped in next, and scored Hargrove with a single to right field.
Although he was known as the American League’s premier fastball pitcher (after the departure of Nolan Ryan to the Astros in 1980), Barker did not record a strikeout until the 10th batter faced. From the top of the 4th on, Barker struck out eleven batters swinging. His curveball was so dominant that at no point in the game did a Blue Jay hitter ever face a three-ball count.
Barker threw 103 pitches, and 74 were strikes. He threw only 17 fastballs after the fourth inning. Ron Hassey later remarked on the dominance of Lenny’s curveball, “By the ninth inning we decided if there was going to be a base hit, it would have to come off a breaking pitch.”
Lenny later remarked on how the inclement weather worked to his advantage. “I’m always wetting the ball and rubbing it up to get a better grip. The mist just gave me more moisture to work with.”
Jorge Ortega hit a solo home run to lead off the bottom of the 8th inning. Long-time fans may remember that the Muni stadium scoreboard always displayed a trivia question, usually in the later innings. These questions were chosen earlier in the day by team staff and programmed into the display board.
That days trivia question was “Which two teams have never been involved in a no hitter.” The answer was Toronto and the Seattle Mariners. Some players in the dugout feared that the stadium itself had invoked the jinx that comes with talking about a no-hitter.
On the mound for the top of the 9th, Barker was well aware that he was on the cusp of something special. Lenny later recounted, “I was so nervous at the end that I dropped the ball on the mound one time. My stomach was a wreck.” Rick Bosetti fouled off one of Barker’s only poorly-located pitches of the night, and then was retired on a pop foul to the third base side.
Al Woods pinch hit for Danny Ainge and struck out swinging. The 27th batter was Ernie Whitt, another pinch hitter who entered the game with a .188 batting average. Whitt lofted a fly ball into center field. It was caught by Rick Manning and a raucous celebration began.
I have a family friend who was there. The ticket stubs and scorecard hanging in his home were one of the inspirations for this project.
I asked Neil to tell me about the game from a fan’s perspective:
“I invited my girlfriend of 2 months (we just celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary) to go to the game with me. We drove up from Warren where we lived at the time. It was a cool misty night. I bought two general reserved seats along the first baseline figuring we would be able to move up close to the field which is exactly what we did as there were very few fans there due to the inclement weather. I bought a program and a pencil to keep score which my wife found interesting not being all that much of a baseball fan.
Along with having uncommon control Barker’s curveball was really breaking sharply that night and the Expansion Blue Jays were overmatched. Celtics GM Danny Ainge played second for them that night which was kind of interesting as he was also attending Brigham Young at the time and was eventually named the college basketball player of the year. As the game wore on and Barker showed no signs of tiring, other fans lined up behind us to copy our scorecard. I vividly recall the final out which was a pop out to Manning in center, followed by a wild celebration.
Many years later I took my son to an autograph show to get Lenny to sign the scorecard and stubs. He couldn’t have been nicer and spent a bit of time looking at the scorecard before signing it.”
Perhaps the reason so many people claim to have been at the game was because so many more people saw it than normally did in 1981. The game happened to be broadcast over the air on WUAB Channel 43. Bruce Drennan and Joe Tait were the broadcast team. One week later, a compressed-game recap was aired with Drennan and Tait providing further commentary. Thanks to YouTube user TomBombadil and (I presume) some serious VHS technology, this compressed replay is a window into an event that briefly made Cleveland the center of the baseball world.
Barker’s perfecto was the eighth of the modern era. It had been thirteen years since Catfish Hunter’s perfect game in May of 1968 and would be another three years until Mike Witt was threw one for the California Angels.
Barker’s Perfect Game is one of two for the Indians, along with Addie Joss in Game 152 of the 1908 season. It is one of fourteen no-hitters thrown by the Tribe.