One hundred years from this day
Will the people still feel this way
Still say the things that they’re sayin’ right now?
Gram Parsons and The Byrds asked that question in 1968, but we can answer it — at least as of May 2, 2017 — for it was exactly one hundred years ago that the Reds Fred Toney combined with the Cubs “Hippo” Vaughn for what 1917 observers called “the strangest, the most unheard-of, the most unique occurrence that ever starred a game whose commonest feats are unusual.”
People may not be sayin’ that, but they should still be talking about the Reds game from May 2, 1917 — the only double no-hitter in major league history.
Vaughn, one of the NL’s best pitchers, would go on to post a 23-10 record for a Cubs team that went 50-67 in games he didn’t start. His 6.7 bWAR ranked sixth among all NL players. This being the dead ball era, you have to take Vaughn’s 2.01 ERA with a grain of salt, but it still equates to a 143 ERA+. He walked two Reds and another reached via error, but all three runners were erased (via two double plays and a caught stealing). Vaughn faced the minimum 27 hitters through nine innings.
Toney, who once pitched a 17-inning no-hitter in the minor leagues, said that he didn’t even have his good stuff until the seventh inning, and that he didn’t realize he was throwing a no-hitter until the ninth. While his overall career didn’t reach Vaughn’s level, Toney was a solid starter in his own right. In his three-plus seasons with the Reds (1915-18), Toney threw 999 innings with a 123 ERA+.
Both pitchers retired the side in order in the ninth inning, completing their regulation no-hitters. They’d made baseball history, but hadn’t yet decided the day’s game.
With one out in the top of the tenth, Reds shortstop Larry Kopf finally broke through with the game’s first hit, a liner to right field. One out later, Cincinnati’s cleanup hitter, Hal Chase reached on an uncharacteristic error by Chicago center fielder Cy Williams.
Running with two outs, Kopf took third on the error. That brought Jim Thorpe to the plate. Yes, the Jim Thorpe was a Red. (For more on Thorpe’s baseball career, and a lot more about this game, you’ll want to read The Big 50: The Men and Moments that Made the Cincinnati Reds when it arrives next spring.)
Anyway, Thorpe (career OBP .286) nubbed one in front of the plate. Vaughn came off the mound to grab it, and had to make an instant decision: should he try to get Thorpe – literally one of the world’s fastest men – at first, or flip the ball to his catcher and hope to get Kopf out at the plate?
Vaughn chose Door #2, but his hurried toss reached the catcher at the same time Kopf did, and the run scored in the collision.
Toney, still feeling “fit and determined,” retired the Cubs in the order in the tenth, completing his official no-hitter and guaranteeing his, and Vaughn’s places in history.
One hundred years from that day, we may not all agree with Reds manager Christy Mathewson that it was “the greatest game ever pitched,” but it’s definitely still in the conversation.
Odds & Ends
One of the great joys of writing our book was discovering crazy, unreported details and connections, even from famous games like this. And one of the great agonies was cutting those stories, to ensure that the book could be lifted without a crane.
As the release date gets closer, we’ll share more of these “tough cuts,” but here are a few from the double no-hitter.
- In both the Chicago and Cincinnati papers after the game, Kopf’s go-ahead run is described as a fairly typical bang-bang play at the plate, with Vaughn perhaps slow to get to Thorpe’s dribbler, and catcher Art Wilson unable to handle the toss and get the tag down.
But years later, Vaughn told an alternative, and much more bizarre version of the story. In Vaughn’s version, he makes the play and flips the ball to Wilson, who “just went paralyzed” and let the ball bounce off his chest protector. Meanwhile, Kopf – who had himself frozen halfway down the baseline, according to Vaughn – easily scored. In this version, Wilson still doesn’t wake up until Vaughn tells him to pick up the ball and barely tag out the hustling Chase, who was inexplicably trying to score from second on a nubber in front of the plate. This version ends with a furious Cub owner Charles Weeghman cursing the team out in the clubhouse, and a stricken, teary-eyed Wilson begging Vaughn’s forgiveness.
- Toney’s personal life took a dramatic turn after 1917. First, he was arrested for dodging the WWI draft. He offered to enlist to settle things, but the draft board put him on trial. The gist of the case was that Toney had misrepresented the fact that he wasn’t living with his wife (married men were exempt from the draft at the time). While that trial ended in a hung jury, it came out that Toney had been actually living – and traveling – with his mistress for the prior three years. So he was immediately re-arrested and charged with violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to take a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.” He eventually pled guilty to the charge and spent some time in prison, arriving late to the 1919 season (by this time, he’d been sold to the Giants).
- The game was strangely packed with football stars. Reds centerfielder Greasy Neale and Thorpe are both members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and were actually teammates later that year with the 1917 Canton Bulldogs. By the time of this game, Neale was also two seasons into a 35-year football coaching career, eventually coaching seven college programs and leading the Philadelphia Eagles to back-to-back NFL championships. He and Thorpe are members of the College Football Hall of Fame. The Cubs’ Cy Williams went to Notre Dame as a football player, where his teammate was Knute Rockne.