Double No-Hit: Johnny Vander Meer's Historic Night under the Lights. By James W. Johnson. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. Pp. xi, 196. $15.95.)
Article first published online: 13 MAR 2013
© 2013 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 75, Issue 1, pages 157–158, Spring 2013
How to Cite
Nathanson, M. (2013), Double No-Hit: Johnny Vander Meer's Historic Night under the Lights. By James W. Johnson. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. Pp. xi, 196. $15.95.). Historian, 75: 157–158. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12004_28
- Issue published online: 13 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 13 MAR 2013
There are few areas of modern American historical research more deceptively difficult than baseball. On the surface it appears laughably easy—no sport and few other cultural events have been covered more thoroughly than America's national pastime, with the stars of the game followed by a seemingly endless trail of newspaper clippings documenting their exploits from high school through their retirement as professionals. As such, there seemingly is no end to the amount of primary source material for the baseball biographer. However, the nature of the source material—newspaper accounts—renders the information emanating from it questionable at best in many cases.
This is particularly true when it comes to the sports pages, which, prior to the 1960s, engaged in boosterism and fawning accounts of local heroes oftentimes at the expense of the facts. Even after the “gee whiz” days of sports reporting ended, newspaper accounts remained (and remain) problematic for the historian because although few primary sources do a better job of re-creating the mood of the time, they are far less successful, given the immediacy between the event covered and the reporting of it, in parceling out the facts and putting them in their proper perspective.
Regardless, many baseball historians rely upon them faithfully, prizing their status as “primary” sources over the reality that they oftentimes do a poor job of conveying the sort of information they promise to provide. Consequently, many baseball biographies suffer, unwittingly, from the same maladies as their sources despite having the advantages of time and perspective. James W. Johnson's account of Johnny Vander Meer's historic 1938 no-hitter against the Brooklyn Dodgers is no exception.
Relying upon contemporary newspaper accounts as well as secondary sources that themselves rely on newspaper accounts, Johnson does an admirable job of re-creating the mood in the stands at Ebbets Field on the evening of 15 June 1938—the date of not only the second of Vander Meer's consecutive no-hitters but the first night game ever played at the stadium as well. As the author recounts the historic event (one not accomplished before or since and which rendered Vander Meer a household name despite his otherwise ordinary career) inning-by-inning, he smartly uses each frame as a reference point for digressions into Vander Meer's background, his development as a pitcher, and the development of night baseball, among other topics. The author provides many interesting “factoids” (for example, in order to take full advantage of the newly installed lights, Vander Meer's second no-hitter did not get underway until 9:23 p.m.).
Unfortunately, Johnson's reliance on newspaper accounts causes the arc of his biography to read like a succession of newspaper clippings in that while Vander Meer's career is ascending, he is portrayed only positively. When he struggles later on, the tone switches, and, for the first time, the reader learns that Vander Meer's relationship with his teammates was complicated at best—some believed him to be a “cheapskate” while others resented him for other perceived slights. A more nuanced biography would have recognized the clues in the later newspaper accounts and dug deeper in an attempt to flesh out more fully the truth behind the pablum of the earlier stories.
Regardless, as baseball histories go, this one is a long single or, perhaps, even a double. In order to round the bases, however, more and deeper analysis beyond the headlines was required.