Past Time: The Little Known Controversy of Howard Ehmke

Many fans of baseball history know the accomplishment of Johnny Vander Meer.  In 1938, Vander Meer pitched no-hitters in two consecutive starts, the second of which was Ebbets Field’s first night game.  This is a well known and revered baseball statistic, one many think can never be duplicated.

However, one pitcher was a controversial call away from preceding Vander Meer in this accomplishment 15 years prior to Johnny’s feat.

Red Sox hurler Howard Ehmke was tall and lanky.  He was well known for his sidearm, and sometimes submarine, delivery.  He finished his career with a very respectable 3.71 ERA over 15 years with four different clubs. He topped 300 innings pitched in both 1923 and 1924 for Boston.

In 1923, he plunked Ty Cobb on the knee with a fastball that led to a fight between the two under the stands after the game.

But most importantly, Ehmke no-hit the Philadelphia A’s on September 7, 1923.  It should be noted that the 1920’s were notoriously a decade of offense.  There were only four no-hitters in the National League during the entire decade, and the American League had zero between August 21, 1926 and April 29, 1931.  It wasn’t a very good era for pitchers to try to accomplish the impossible in that regard.

In that game against the A’s, Ehmke should never have gotten the no-hitter, but fate was on his side. Slim Harriss, the pitcher for the A’s that day, hit a line drive single to left field in the sixth inning, but was tagged out after he missed first base.  Another ball in the eighth inning was initially ruled a hit, but changed to an error when the inning was over.

The Baseball Gods have a way of evening things out.

Four days later at Yankee Stadium, Ehmke got the first batter he faced, Whitey Witt, to hit a grounder to third baseman Howie Shanks.  Shanks booted it and didn’t even attempt to throw to first.  Fred Lieb, a New York sportswriter, ruled the play a hit.  No one knew at the time, but that would be very controversial, as Ehmke didn’t yield another hit the rest of the game.

Howard Ehmke’s name is not one tossed around in discussions about baseball lore and history.  But were it not for Fred Lieb’s decision, he would have the distinction that Johnny Vander Meer owns today: the first player to throw two consecutive no-hitters.


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