The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 9, 2013

Pitcher perfect

133 years ago Wednesday, John Lee Richmond, born in Sheffield Twp. and raised in Geneva, threw the first perfect game in Major League Baseball history

By DON McCORMACK - donmac@suite224.net
Sports Editor

First of a series...

On a gray, sultry day in June 1880, John Lee Richmond, a 5-foot-10, 142-pound pitcher did something no other player in Major League Baseball history had done — throw a perfect game.

Since Richmond hurled his gem — 133 years ago, Wednesday — almost half a million games have been pitched in 137 major-league seasons and only 22 others have duplicated Richmond’s feat of retiring 27 opposing batters in order.

And he was born right here in Ashtabula County, in Sheffield Township, on May 5, 1857, and he was the first player from this county to play in the majors, making his debut on Sept. 27, 1879, for the Boston Red Caps.

While Richmond was probably best known for making baseball history, what he did with his life after the curtain dropped on his playing days concluded without question contributed more to society.

But as is usually the case even today, it is for his performance in an athletic contest that he is most remembered.

This the first of my series, which will span 13 parts and run periodically through the summer, of the players to appear in a major-league game who were literally born here in Ashtabula County. It’s been in the works for more than 30 years, but it debuts today.

This is the story of John Lee Richmond — the “perfect pitcher” — and the man.



Crazy times

The days leading up to Richmond’s historic day on the mound were hectic. Details of those days, as well as of the game itself, were gleaned from several sources, including his great grandson, John Richmond Husman, writing for Toledo Magazine in May 1987.

On Thursday, June 10, 1880, Richmond, pitching for Worcester, Mass., had shut out the Cleveland Forest Citys, 5-0, at Worcester (pronounced WUSS-ter) in a National League contest. He was in the midst of a streak that would see him hurl 42 consecutive innings without surrendering an earned run.

His perfect game, which came two days later, marked his fourth shutout in a 12-day span.

As will be the case, the legend of Richmond’s perfect game grew to epic proportions over time. The story goes, Richmond returned to Brown University in Providence on Friday, June 11 to graduate an attend parties, missing Worcester’s exhibition game against Yale.

Graduation ceremonies were said to include a class baseball game played at 4:50 p.m. on Saturday. Richmond was reportedly up all night following a class supper at the music hall. The story was, Richmond took part in the game, then went to bed at 6:30 a.m. He supposedly awoke in time to catch an 11:30 a.m. train to Worcester to pitch against Cleveland in the afternoon for the second time in three days.

That train was delayed and Richmond was forced to hit the playing field without his dinner.

Word was, Worcester manager Frank Bancroft had hired a special train to stand by to speed Richmond from his graduation ceremonies at Brown to Worcester, where he would eventually go on to throw his perfect game against Cleveland.

As Husman’s story in Toledo Magazine pointed out, it made for a wonderful story... but it didn’t happen.

In fact, Richmond’s graduation was June 16, four days after his perfect-game performance. That day, however, Bancroft did have a special train waiting to rush Richmond from Brown to Worcester, where he was defeated by Chicago in 10 innings, 7-6.

Though the story of the train ride-to-perfect game was only a yarn, it doesn’t detract from Richmond’s gem.



The game

Richmond was matched against Big Jim McCormick, a just happened to be Cleveland’s manager as well, and they combined in a classic matchup at Worcester Agricultural Fair Grounds.

Richmond himself got the first hit in the game in the home half of the fourth, but he was erased on a double play. While Richmond continued to shut down Cleveland, Worcester would manage only other hits off McCormack, both by shortstop Art Irwin.

The only run of the contest came courtesy of a double-error by Cleveland second baseman Fred “Sure-Shot” Dunlap. Irwin singled and eventually scored, thanks mostly to Dunlap. First, the rookie second baseman dropped a double-play ball that would have erased Irwin at second. However, he fumbled the ball and Irwin headed for third and then, daringly, home.

The stunned Dunlap, caught off-guard by Irwin’s daring dash, then threw the baseball over catcher Doc Kennedy’s head, allowing Irwin to score.

Years after his perfect game, Richmond said, “I used to think Dunlap was the greatest second baseman in the world.”

Like almost every game that is put in the “classic” category by baseball historians, Richmond’s historic game featured a game-saving play.

In the top of the fifth, Cleveland’s cleanup hitter, Bill Phillips, hit a ball between the first and second baseman for an apparent base hit. However, Worcester right fielder Alonzo Knight, the team captain and “old man” of the squad at age 26, charged in, scooped the baseball with his bare hand (fielding gloves were not in use, yet) and fired a strike to first baseman J.F. Sullivan. Umpire Foghorn Bradley called Phillips out on a bang-bang play to preserve the perfect game.

If Richmond had been rough on the Cleveland hitters to that point, they hadn’t seen anything yet. After Knight’s play, Richmond was virtually untouchable, recording all five of his strikeouts over the final four innings. He also dominated Cleveland to the point only three balls were hit out of the infield all day.

As it turned out, Richmond’s most difficult opponent that day may not have been the Forest Citys, but Mother Nature. In the eighth inning, the skies opened and a downpour delayed the game for several minutes.

Richmond refused to allow the cloudburst to break his concentration, though. After a pile of sawdust was placed behind the pitching position to help the pitchers dry the ball. Richmond completed his masterpiece in only 86 minutes, including the rain delay, and forever earned himself a place in baseball history.

The game was witnessed by only 700 fans, or “cranks,” as spectators were referred in those days.



Other firsts

While the perfect game was obviously Richmond’s most notable baseball achievement, he was involved in several other groundbreaking events:



His early years

Richmond was born right here in Ashtabula County on May 5, 1857 in Sheffield Township, one of nine children of Cyrus R. and Eliza Tinan Richmond.

His father was a Baptist minister here, as was his father before him. A few years later, the Richmond’s moved to Geneva, where his father was minister of the Baptist Church during the Civil War.

John Lee went on to attend the Prepatory Department of Oberlin College in 1873 at age 16 before moving on to Brown in the fall of 1876, the year of Major League Baseball’s first season.

George Custer had just fallen to Crazy Horse and his warriors in Montana.



A demonstration

Upon arrival at Brown, Richmond joined the Delta Upsilon fraternity and was voted freshman class president.

In was his sophomore year at Brown, 1878, when the young left-hander became embroiled in a debate with professor Walter Greene, he of Brown’s physics department, about his “curved delivery.”

Professor Greene told Richmond that there was no such thing as a curve ball, that it was merely an optical illusion. The young Richmond proposed a demonstration, once which has since outranked Galileo’s in the eyes of youth around the world.

Richmond invited the entire university faculty to join him in front of University Hall. He proceeded to pitch several balls that clearly curved. The legend goes that after Richmond completed his demonstration, all in attendance, including Professor Greene, were convinced the curve ball did in fact exist.

It was another first for Richmond. Baseball historians generally credited Richmond with throw the first curve ball, or at least being the first player to have any great amount of success with the pitch.

In truth, the curve had already been invented by Candy Cummings. What made Richmond’s curve unique, however, was its trajectory. Pitches thrown by Cummings and other so-called curve-ball specialists came to the plate in a sweeping motion, breaking either toward or away from the batter.

However, Richmond could make his deliveries rise or drop just before reaching the batter, pitches he perfected while working inside at Brown during the winter of 1878-79.



Short-lived career

In the late 1800s, most professional teams carried only one pitcher. Richmond was a rubber-armed hurler for Worcester. In 1880, the team played 83 games and Richmond started a staggering 66 of them.

He led the National League in appearances with 74, winning 32 games and losing 32, and also led the loop with three saves. All totaled, Richmond either won or saved 35 of Worcester’s 40 victories and pitched an amazing 590 2/3 innings, still the 17th-highest total in the history of the game.

When he was not on the mound, Richmond did not rest — he played outfield. By the time he finished three seasons with Worcester, Richmond’s arm was worn out. In his final season there, he appeared in “only” 48 games, winning 14 of the club’s 19 victories in the season.

Richmond finished his professional career with a record of 75-100, an earned run average of 3.06 and a batting average of .257.



Moving on

After graduating from Brown and throwing his perfect game, Richmond became a medical student at the University of City of New York (later to be named New York University). He received his doctor of medicine degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York in 1883, while still playing professional baseball.

After giving up baseball, Richmond returned here to Ashtabula County, opening a private practice. However, he soon found that medicine was not for him and he went to Geneva High School, where he taught mathematics and chemistry for a time.

In 1890, Richmond moved to Toledo. He taught in Toledo public schools for 32 years, first at Central High, then at Scott High. His love for baseball did not fade, however, as he coached four championship squads while at Scott.

He then joined the University of Toledo faculty as assistant professor of mathematics in 1922 and was later appointed professor of hygiene and physical education.

Richmond became the acting dean of men at Toledo in 1923 and the dean of men in 1925. He retired in 1929.

On Tuesday, Oct. 1, 1929, Richmond died at his home at age 72. He had suffered a stroke a month earlier, but appeared to be recovering before suffering a relapse.



Honoring the pitcher

One of the finest baseball writers of the early 20th century, John B. Foster, writing for the Providence Journal, described John Lee Richmond, the pitcher, this way:

“Lee Richmond was a pitching of cunning and control. He knew much about the curve that was just then beginning to make greater headway.

“He studied his batters and he accepted the help of his catcher. He was not a strikeout pitcher, in the sense that he tried to lord over the batter by using great speed.

“He had a good change of pace, and he worked the batters’ weak spots, tempting them to swing, luring him to lunge, and often managing to strike him out because one of those evasive curves would bend away, increasing its loop with a gentle motion that induced the batter to reach our farther and upset his balance.

“When Richmond first went West to pitch, after having tossed his perfect game against the Cleveland club in Worcester, the baseball enthusiasts in the country beyond the Allegheny Mountains could not believe that this slender chap, with a little brush of a mustache and a placid smile, could be the man who had defeated the famous Cleveland team with its marvelous infield and hard-hitting outfield.

“Dunlap played second base for Cleveland in those days, and he was one of the best hitters of his time, but Richmond fooled him completely.”



Honoring the man

The day after his death, a special convocation of University of Toledo students and faculty held a memorial service for their longtime mentor and colleague and the university flag was flown at half-mast.

On Thursday, Oct. 3, 1929, Dr. John Lee Richmond — born and raised in Ashtabula County and who hurled the first perfect game in Major League Baseball history — was buried in Forest Cemetery in Toledo.

McCormack is the sports editor of the Star Beacon. Reach him at donmac@suite224.net.