The Two Bizarre No-Hitters of Detroit Tigers Pitcher Virgil Trucks
The Detroit Tigers were mired in last place most of the 1952 season, so there wasn't much to get excited about in the Motor City. Pitcher Virgil Trucks, despite some struggles of his own, did his best to bring some excitement to a team that ultimately finished with what was then the worst record ever recorded by the Tigers—an abysmal 50-104 mark. Trucks, however, made history when he became the third pitcher of all-time to throw two no-hitters in one season, blanking the Washington Senators 1-0 on May 15 and keeping the New York Yankees hitless in another 1-0 victory on Aug. 25. Each outing, however, was marked by a handful of unique moments that left Trucks the lone shiny jewel in a season that otherwise belonged in a dumpster. Between uniform switches, a walk-off home run, and a controversial hit vs. error decision, his feats became far more memorable than many other no-hitters.
With two no-hitters in a season, Trucks joined Johnny Vander Meer and Allie Reynolds as the only pitchers to hurl two no-hitters in the same season. Vander Meer is well known for having thrown back-to-back no-hitters in 1938, while Reynolds accomplished the feat in 1951. Since Trucks joined the exclusive club, two others have added their names to the list—Nolan Ryan in 1973 and Max Scherzer in 2015. Roy Halladay had two no-hitters in 2010, but his second came during the postseason.
As for Trucks, the fact he could even be available to throw two no-hitters was because of a renowned surgeon of the mid-1900s, who helped cure his "dead arm" in 1950, and put him back on a path to stardom. Trucks was actually the last player ever treated by St. Louis-based Dr. Robert F. Hyland, who died in December 1950.
"It has been almost as if a little of Dr. Hyland was living in me," Trucks said after his second no-hitter. "... He told me when he treated me that if the arm didn't respond, I could come back and he would work on it again. He died shortly after that but I never would have needed to go back—except to express my gratefulness."
A Day in Houtteman's Shoes
The tale of Virgil Trucks' first no-hitter of 1952 actually started 19 days earlier, when fellow pitcher Art Houtteman carried a no-hit bid into the bottom of the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians on April 26. It was that day when Cleveland's Harry Simpson spoiled Houtteman's outing with a two-out single. While it wasn't Houtteman on the mound on May 15, his lucky shoes still made their way to the mound at Briggs Stadium in Detroit—which hadn't seen a no-hitter since 1912.
"Mine were pinching my feet," Trucks said of his spikes. "So Art gave me his shoes just before the game. I'm so happy I feel like walking home in them. ... Wait til somebody tells me some day that they sure wish they had been in my shoes out there when I got my no-hitter. I'll tell them that they couldn't been in mine—but Houtteman's."
Trucks was masterful in his fifth start of the season—a stark contrast to what had been significant early-season struggles for the veteran right-hander—mowing down the Washington Senators with ease. Despite having given up 13 hits in his prior outings and 30 hits over the first 15 2/3 innings of the season, Trucks showed better command against the Senators, striking out seven, while inducing 12 flyouts and eight groundouts.
The only blemishes that afternoon were two hit batters, a walk, and a batter who reached on error, but none of those base runners advanced past second. Hitting batters, his manager Red Rolfe said after the game, had become "quite a psychological handicap" in 1951, one year after Trucks returned from a significant arm injury. Prior to the game, coach Rick Ferrell, a Hall of Fame catcher, said he didn't feel Trucks had warmed up enough and that Trucks "didn't look loose." Ferrell's concerns, however, proved to be all for naught.
"I used sliders and curve balls most of the time. But when I did throw the fastball, it was just as fast as ever." Trucks said, noting he struck out cleanup hitter Mickey Vernon on a fastball to end the ninth inning and pick up his first victory of the season.
It was the first no-hitter thrown by a Tigers pitcher since George Mullin stifled the St. Louis Browns 7-0 on July 4, 1912, and the first in Detroit's Briggs Stadium since July 30, 1948, when Cleveland's Bob Lemon no-hit the Tigers—who used Houtteman as their starter that day. Detroit's offense, meanwhile, had been victims of a no-hitter four other times since 1912, and also had struggles during Trucks' no-hitter. Losing pitcher Bob Porterfield didn't allow a hit until the sixth inning, and didn't let up the losing run until the bottom of the ninth.
Unfortunately, very few would be able to saw they saw the game in person, as the announced attendance at Briggs Stadium was a dismal 2,215.
Wertz Saves The Day
Had it not been for one power-hitting teammate, however, Trucks' outing may have just become another fine performance forgotten in the annals of baseball history. The game looked all but certain to be headed for extra innings when Vic Wertz stepped to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, but he would slug a home run to preserve Trucks' feat and give the Tigers a much-needed victory, just the team's seventh of the young season, which was coming just two seasons after Detroit were winners of 95 games.
"When you belted that one, I jumped so high I hit my head on the top of the dugout," Trucks told Wertz in front of the media after the game. "That is the greatest hit I ever did see or want to see."
Wertz—who also doubled in the game—had found his power stroke in his third big league season, cranking 20 home runs and driving in 133 in 1949. He then smashed 27 homers in each 1950 and 1951 to establish himself as Detroit's most viable power threat. Wertz, however, was traded to the St. Louis Browns on Aug. 14, 1952, as part of an eight-player swap that occurred 11 days before Trucks would throw his second no-hitter, but Wertz would return to the Tigers in 1962 and the beginning of 1963. Three days prior to Trucks' first no-hitter, Wertz got re-married, and the day before, he socked a home run to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning for what proved to be the deciding run in a 3-2 victory over the Senators.
"I've got to get married more often," Wertz joked. "... Boy, did that (home run) make me feel good after I'd ruined another scoring chance by getting picked off in the seventh inning."
Wertz had been on the spoiling side of a no-hitter, as well. In 1951, he swatted a home run off Lemon to lead off the eighth inning for Detroit's only hit in 2-1 loss on May 29. As for the walk-off home run to seal a no-hitter, however, that was a feat in a class of its own.
"Bet it's never been done before," Ferrell said. "A home run with two out in the ninth to win a game like that. It's almost impossible to believe."
According to information available on Retrosheet, the circumstance was unique. Detailed information on the 53 no-hitters pitched before 1906 is not available, but among those between 1906 and Trucks' outing, only five other no-hitters provided similar late-inning drama.
- On Sept. 20, 1908, Frank Smith of the Chicago White Sox fired nine no-hit innings before Freddy Parent hit a fielder's choice—on a soft lob of a pitch that was thrown as part of what was intended to be an intentional walk—that scored Frank Isbell with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning for a 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Athletics.
- On May 17, 1917, Cincinnati Reds hurler Fred Toney fired 10 innings of no-hit baseball, with Jim Thorpe finally breaking the scoreless tie with an RBI hit to score Larry Kopf in the top of the 10th inning of a 1-0 triumph over the Chicago Cubs. Chicago starter Jim Vaughn did not allow any hits over the first nine innings.
- On April 30, 1946, Cleveland Indians standout Bob Feller got his first run of support when Frankie Hayes homered with one out in the top of the ninth inning of a 1-0 road win against the New York Yankees.
- On Sept. 9, 1945, Philadelphia Athletics pitcher Dick Fowler had no-hit the St. Louis Browns for nine innings, but his offense had failed to score. In the bottom of the ninth, however, Hal Peck tripled to lead off the inning and scored when Irv Hall singled in the next at-bat to secure a 1-0 victory.
- On July 4, 1908, New York Giants starter George "Hooks" Wiltse pitched 10 no-hit innings before teammate Art Devlin scored on Al Bridwell's RBI single in the bottom of the 10th for a 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Phillies.
It's An Error ... No, A Hit ... Wait, It's An Error
After nearly matching Vander Meer's 1938 feat of throwing back-to-back no-hitters, Trucks fell back into relative obscurity as Detroit's lack of run support kept piling losses onto his record. He had gone 6 2/3 no-hit innings against the Philadelphia Athletics in his start after no-hitting Washington, and then fired a one-hitter with 10 strikeouts in a 1-0 win over the Senators on July 22. Otherwise, though, his record had dropped to 4-14 going into an Aug. 25 matchup at Yankee Stadium, which would become the day Trucks would accomplish one of the rarest feats in baseball history.
Trucks had strong command throughout the game, but it looked like he was bound for another one-hitter after a third-inning play. A bouncing ball was hit to Johnny Pesky, who bobbled it and couldn't make the throw to first in time. Initially, the play was ruled an error by John Drebinger, the veteran New York Times writer who doubled as the game's official scorer that day, but after protests from some in the press box, the play was changed to a hit. As the game moved along, others continued to question the play, and Drebinger called the Detroit dugout to ask Pesky for his opinion on the play. As Drebinger described it in the Times:
"In the third inning, Phil Rizzuto slapped a ground ball at Johnny Pesky, who appeared to have trouble getting the ball out of his glove and when he finally got it away the throw to first arrived low and late. This reporter, who was the game's official scorer, immediately called it an error, but upon the insistence of several colleagues that the ball had stuck in the webbing of the player's glove, which technically makes it a hit, the verdict was changed. However, that still did not satisfy the official scorer, who then had Pesky himself queried on what had happened. Pesky emphatically declared that the ball had not stuck in his glove, that it had spun out and as a result he had trouble closing his right hand on it in time to make a proper throw."
At the time, newspaper writers often doubled as the game's official scorer, which could lead to controversy over hometown favoritism, though Drebinger's explanation doesn't seem to indicate any intention to assist the home club. The announcement of the change back to an error was made between halves of the seventh inning to 13,442 fans, right after Detroit had taken a 1-0 lead when Walter Dropo doubled and Steve Souchock followed with a single. There was reported to be an immediate buzz around the crowd, who sensed history could be in the making.
"I didn't think it was a hit when it happened," Trucks said. "But who am I to criticize? I just went out and pitched as though they had made a hit. The hit was up there on the scoreboard over the bleachers. But when the change was made, I wanted to go all the way. I was afraid (Mickey) Mantle would bunt in the ninth and was watching for that. But I guess (Casey) Stengel told him to go for the seats. The fast ball I struck him out with was the fastest of the day."
After that strikeout, Trucks finished off the gem by getting Joe Collins to fly out and Hank Bauer to ground out.
"I rubbed that ball up good," catcher Matt Batts told Trucks about the last at-bat. "And I kissed it for good luck. I knew that kiss would bring you luck."
All told, Trucks retired the last 20 hitters he faced in order, allowing no Yankees to reach base after the third inning. The victory improved his ledger to 5-15 for the season, but he wouldn't win again, finishing out the year at 5-19—a significant outlier among his single season won-loss records. It would be one of only two full seasons during his 17-year career that he finished below the .500 mark.
"Virgil Trucks' no-hitter against the Yankees illustrates a point I've been making for some time—that our club has the best pitching staff in the American League," said manager Freddie Hutchinson, who replaced Red Rolfe in the dugout on July 5. "... But you've got to have support. Look at Trucks' record this season. Although he's good enough to have two no-hitters and a one-hitter to his credit, his record is five won and 15 lost. At least five of his games were lost by one run."
Added Trucks: "I'd trade in any two no-hitters for a 20-(win) season that's for sure. But as far as there being a mental barrier, that just isn't so."
A Minor Setback
The two Major League no-hitters weren't the first times he had flirted with the accomplishment. As a minor league strikeout machine, Trucks continued his dominance of the International League in a start on May 31, 1941, against the Montreal Royals. But it wasn't the 11 strikeouts from the Buffalo Bisons starter that would be most remembered that day.
Trucks fired 9 2/3 innings of no-hit baseball against the league leaders, but a hit and an error quickly dashed any hopes of a no-hitter and sent Trucks home as the losing pitcher.
Alex Kampouris—who at the time already had several full seasons of Major League action under his belt—singled with two outs in bottom of the ninth and Paul Campbell—who later became a teammate of Trucks from 1948-50 and ultimately spent 57 straight years involved with baseball—hit a slow roller to third baseman Bob Boken, who threw wildly to first and allowed Kampouris to score. Boken toiled in the minors over a decade after playing in the big leagues in 1933 and 1934.
Trucks had 11 strikeouts, improving his season total to 74 through 70 innings, and the loss moved his record to 5-3.
After Wertz bailed him out with his dramatic home run in May 1952, Trucks recalled the game from 11 years earlier.
"I was worried I'd lose this no-hitter just like I did when I pitched one for Buffalo against Montreal in the International League 11 years ago," Trucks said. "Montreal came up with a run in the 10th, and I was licked, 1-0. I worried that the same thing might happen this time."
Trucks also pitched a one-hitter against the Philadelphia Athletics in a 4-0 win on June 14, 1949.
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