No-Hitters and Official Scorers

By Stew Thornley
Milkees Press

Like their umpiring counterparts on the field, official scorers are an anonymous bunch. Fans usually pay attention to them only when a close call is made.

While this may happen more often with umpires than with scorers, the latter can at time find themselves the center of controversy, especially when a pitcher is working on a no-hitter. A hard ground ball that handcuffs a shortstop puts the scorer in the spotlight as fans and players alike wait for the decision of hit or error.

Three no-hitters in 1991—Bret Saberhagen’s, Wilson Alvarez’s, and the combined gem by three Atlanta pitchers—were dependent on a scorer’s call of error on a borderline play.

Although most scorers won’t allow the presence of a possible no-hitter to affect their decisions, some appear to subscribe to the philosophy that the first hit should be a clean one.

In 1979, Dick Miller of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner used this argument in trying to justify his attempt to help California’s Nolan Ryan complete a no-hitter against the New York Yankees. In the eighth inning, Miller charged Angels center fielder Rick Miller with an error when he couldn’t make a shoestring catch of Jim Spencer’s low liner. Even Angels vice president Buzzie Bavasi disagreed with the scoring decision and is reported to have shouted at Dick Miller: “You didn’t have to do that. You’ve embarrassed us!” The scoring call became a non-issue when Reggie Jackson finally broke up the no-hitter in the ninth with a single too clean for even Miller to rule otherwise.

At times, an official scoring decision appears to be all that stands in the way of a no-hitter. In June of 1992, the New York Mets’ only hit off Ken Hill of Montreal was a fifth-inning grounder by Anthony Young that shortstop Tom Foley was unable to control with a backhanded stab. Because he gave Young a hit on the play, scorer Bob Mann was on the hot seat after the game. (In the author’s opinion, Mann made a proper call on this play; even if he had ruled it an error, however, it should be remembered that this is no guarantee that Hill still would have completed the no-hitter.)

Bob Webb wound up in a similar situation more than 15 years later. In the fifth inning of a game between the Brewers and Pirates in Pittsburgh on August 31, 2008, Andy LaRoche hit a soft grounder toward the left side of the infield. Milwaukee pitcher C. C. Sabathia tried to make a barehanded pickup between the mound and third base but bobbled the ball. Webb ruled a hit, which turned out to be the only hit given up by Sabathia in the game. Associated Press reporter Alan Robinson, in his game account, wrote, “The play in question is routinely called a hit and fielders often get angry when they get errors on easier plays. The Associated Press polled eight writers from both cities who have reported on the majors for 10 years or more, and six would have called it a hit.” Nevertheless, Webb was blasted by Milwaukee manager Ned Yost, who said, “That’s a stinking no-hitter we all got cheated from.” The Brewers requested that Major League Baseball review the call, hoping to have it changed to an error, but the league upheld Webb’s decision.

On June 13, 2012 R. A. Dickey of the Mets pitched a one-hitter in Tampa Bay. In the first inning, B. J. Upton of the Rays hit a soft grounder to third. David Wright tried to barehand the grounder but dropped it and was credited with a hit by Bill Mathews. When it remained the only hit off Dickey, the Mets appealed the play to Major League Baseball although they appeared unconvinced of the validity of their challenge. New York manager Terry Collins said the chances of getting the call overturned were less than five percent. “What the heck did we have to lose?” said Collins. Mathews’s call was upheld, and the game remained a one-hitter. Dickey noted that the situation would have been different for him, pitching in the later innings with a no-hitter on the line, had the first inning grounder been ruled an error instead of a hit, and he said that, had hit been changed to an error by Major League Baseball, the result would have been “an asterisk bigger than the no-hitter itself.”

Scorers in these circumstances can be pressured, sometimes intensely, to change their calls. In an October 1974 game at Met Stadium in Minnesota, Toby Harrah of the Rangers reached base in the first inning on a grounder that went through Twins third baseman Eric Soderholm. Although it appeared to be a misplay by Soderholm, scorer Bob Fowler gave Harrah an infield hit. To Fowler’s credit, however, he stuck with his call as it remained the only hit off Dave Goltz until two out in the ninth inning when, to Fowler’s relief, Pete Mackanin tripled. In between the two hits, Texas manager Billy Martin reportedly called the Twins dugout to say he would back them should they want to lobby Fowler to change the call. Twins coach Bob Rodgers called Fowler and asked, “Can you change the hit to an error?” Fowler’s reply: “I can, but I won’t.”

Fewer than two years later, Patrick Reusse faced a similar situation in Minnesota, and the pitcher again was Goltz. Reusse, who also covered the game for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, awarded a hit to the first batter of the game, California’s Dave Collins, who reached base on a grounder to first. Goltz was late in covering and dropped Rod Carew’s throw. As it remained the only hit for the Angels into the late innings, Reusse started hearing from the crowd and also from Goltz, who relayed a message to the press box to say he should have been charged with an error. Reusse got off the hook with two out in the ninth when Mario Guerrero dropped a single into right-center field. Reusse later wrote, “I love Mario Guerrero. Always have, always will.”

Another scorer who stuck to his decision was Fred Lieb in a September 1923 game between the Yankees and Red Sox in New York. Facing Howard Ehmke, the first batter of the game for the Yankees, Whitey Witt, hit a grounder to third-baseman Howard Shanks. The New York Times reported, “The ball bounced perfectly at Shanks but hit him in the chest and rolled toward second base. Before Shanks could retrieve the ball, Witt, a fast man, had beaten the throw to first.” Lieb, determining that the ball had taken a bad hop, called it a hit and faced intense pressure to change that call as Ehmke then put down the Yankees with only a walk over the rest of the game. Although he refused to buckle to the pressure and changed the call, Lieb, in his autobiography, Baseball As I Have Known It, characterized his call as “perhaps the saddest decision I ever made.”

One of the reasons for the focus on this game was that in his previous outing, Ehmke had pitched a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Athletics. Thus, Lieb’s call on the Witt play may have deprived Ehmke of being the first pitcher in the major leagues to pitch two consecutive no-hitters. In his no-hitter against the Athletics, Ehmke benefited from a strange play as well as a scoring change. In the sixth inning, Slim Harriss of Philadelphia apparently doubled but was called out on appeal for missing first base. Then in the eighth inning, Frank Welch of the Athletics hit a line drive to left that Mike Menosky couldn’t catch cleanly. The official scorer first gave Welch a hit but changed the ruling to an error before the inning was concluded.

Bob Rosenberg was decisive but a bobble by the scoreboard operator caused speculation to the contrary. On July 1, 1990 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Andy Hawkins of the New York Yankees had a no-hitter going with two out in the last of the eighth in a scoreless game. Sammy Sosa hit a grounder to third. Mike Blowers didn’t handle it cleanly and then was too late with his throw to first. An “H” flashed on the scoreboard and soon was replaced by an “E.” Rosey was asked after the game if he had called a hit and, after considering the situation, changed it to an to an error on Blowers. Rosenberg said he had called it an error all the way, but an inexperienced operator made his own decision and jumped the gun by putting it on the board. (Scorers hate it when that happens.) Hawkins held on to his no-hitter, but only after a stolen base, two walks, and two more errors gave the White Sox a 4-0 lead and made the bottom of the ninth unnecessary. (The game received much more attention than a more conventional no-hitter although the following year a special records committee kept it off a list of “official” no-hitters since Hawkins had not pitched nine innings even though the game had been played to its natural conclusion.)

A scorer who yielded to the situation was John Drebinger of the New York Times in a 1952 game at Yankee Stadium. In the third inning, Drebinger gave a hit to Phil Rizzuto of the Yankees when Detroit shortstop Johnny Pesky bobbled his ground ball, then threw too late to first. The pitcher for Detroit was Virgil Trucks, who had already hurled a no-hitter earlier in the season.

With Rizzuto’s hit still the only one off Trucks in the seventh, Drebinger called Pesky in the Detroit dugout to get his version of the play.

“I had the ball, and it squirted loose from my glove just as I reached to take it out,” said Pesky. “I messed it up.”

Drebinger then reversed the scoring call, charging Pesky with an error and wiping out Rizzuto’s hit, a decision that brought a cheer even from the Yankee fans when it was announced and that made possible Trucks’s second no-hitter.

While such scoring changes cast doubt over the validity of a no-hitter, at least pitchers such as Ehmke and Trucks have been able to enjoy a hearty celebration on the field at the conclusion of the game.

A no-hitter by Ernie Koob of the St. Louis Browns against the Chicago White Sox on May 5, 1917 was different. Here the switch of a hit to an error did not occur until after the game.

This game took place during a prolific period for no-hitters, some quite notable, around the majors as well as between the same two teams in the same ballpark. (Three days before Koob’s no-hitter, Hippo Vaughn of the Cubs and Fred Toney of the Reds each matched nine innings of hitless ball with Toney keeping his no-hitter and winning in ten innings. Seven weeks later, Ernie Shore relieved Babe Ruth, who was ejected after giving up a lead-off walk, and retired all the batters he faced. Shore for many years was credited with a perfect game although it is now officially ruled a combined no-hitter for Ruth and Shore. On top of this, the day after Koob’s no-hitter, Bob Groom of the Browns pitched two hitless innings in the first game of a doubleheader against the White Sox, then no-hit the Sox in the second game, giving him 11 hitless innings for the day and producing no-hitters on consecutive days at Sportsman’s Park.)

The Koob game came less than three weeks after Chicago’s Ed Cicotte had no-hit the Browns at Sportsman’s Park in another gem marked by controversy because of a scoring decision. Sox first baseman Chick Gandil was charged with an error when he couldn’t handle a wicked shot by Jimmy Austin of the Browns in the seventh inning.

Now back in St. Louis on Saturday, May 5, Cicotte was Koob’s mound opponent and held the Browns to five hits and one unearned run, which was enough for Koob, who held the White Sox without a hit after a first-inning single by Buck Weaver.

The hit by Weaver came on a high bounder to the right of the mound. Second baseman Ernie Johnson, according to the Chicago Tribune, “tore in and tried to pull a brilliant stop and throw, but failed.”

W. J. O’Connor, in his game account for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, although acknowledging that Johnson had given the grounder a “valorous battle,” described the play this way: “He [Johnson] first fielded it with his chest, and knocked it silly at his feet. He then laid a prehensile paw on the pill and came up with ample time to assist [George] Sisler with the out. But he suddenly lost his prehensileness, and tossed the ball over his shoulder like a superstitious person throwing salt to avoid a fight.”

Although official scorer J. B. Sheridan had credited Weaver with a hit at the time it occurred, he began second guessing himself as the game progressed. After the game, the Post-Dispatch’s O’Connor reported, Sheridan “sought sounder counsel from the umpires, the ballplayers and those who were better able to feel the pulse of the play in question.

“To a man the Browns and the enemy and the umps agreed that Johnson deserved an error and Koob a no-hit game. There was the suspicion of gang ethics, here; but the able and honorable official scorer yielded reluctantly under the preponderance of evidence and erased the hit, substituting the error.” (In The Rules of Baseball, David Nemec claims that Sheridan arrived late to the game and missed Weaver’s first-inning grounder. In his absence, the writers present reached consensus on a hit. After the game, knowing a no-hitter was on the line, Sheridan polled the writers and, according to Nemec, “then elected to charge Johnson with an ex post facto error on the play.”)

Exactly how long after the game it took Sheridan to reverse his decision is not clear. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch headline read, NO-HIT GAME NETS KOOB AND BROWNS ONE-RUN VICTORY: Weaver’s Drive in Opening Inning Was Scored a “Hit,” at First, but This Was Later Changed to an “Error.” But the Chicago Tribune headline, KOOB TAMES SOX IN ONE HIT GAME, 1-0, indicates that the play was still considered a hit at the time the Chicago reporter filed his story.

Koob Headline

The game story of the May 5, 1917 game between St. Louis and Chicago in the Chicago Sunday Tribune was written before a scoring decision on Buck Weaver’s first-inning grounder was changed from a hit to an error. Below is the headline from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Koob Headline

The next day’s Chicago Tribune referred to the Koob situation in its report on the Groom no-hitter: “There was no flaw in Groom’s no-hit game. It was free from taint or suspicion which always will cling to the postmortem thing handed Koob yesterday by expunging a hit that had already been recorded.”

Meanwhile, in response to the scoring reversal in Koob’s no-hitter, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a story about a movement by St. Louis and Chicago baseball writers to “protect the official records of baseball from similar offenses in the future . . . to instruct all official scorers that their decisions cannot be reversed except in case of a misinterpretation of the rules. In other words, a hit scored in any inning cannot be wiped out any more than an umpire’s decision can be reversed after the game.”

But whether or not official scorers are prohibited from altering a decision already handed down, they will continue to make subjective judgements, sometime difficult ones, in the course of their normal duties. Usually, only the scorers themselves will agonize over these calls.

But just wait until there’s a no-hitter in progress.

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