You won’t find a lot of Johnny Vander Meer rookie cards featured in dealer cases at your next big card show. He’s not a Hall of Famer and his career record, while serviceable, isn’t spectacular. Vander Meer is famous for what he did over the course of a few days 84 years ago. Something no other big league pitcher had done before and something that will almost certainly never happen again.
When he walked into Crosley Field on June 15, 1938, Vander Meer just wanted to win. It would be his last start before an east coast road trip. The Reds were just three games over .500 and in third place in the National League. The Boston Bees were in town on a Saturday afternoon and less than two hours later, the lefty had done more than just beat them, he’d tossed a no-hitter.
Barely over 5,000 people were in the stands that day. Times were tough and not everyone had money to buy a ticket.
As unexpected as the accomplishment may have been, no one could have predicted what happened four days later. In the first night game played in Brooklyn, Vander Meer survived eight walks and held the Dodgers hitless in a 6-0 win at Ebbets Field.
It was unfathomable, even in an era when pitchers regularly went the distance.
Vander Meer would pitch in the majors and be featured on baseball cards through the 1951 season but his place in history was already secure.
His earliest appearances came during his first full big league season in 1938 as part of the W711 set, issued through a Cincinnati area publisher and featuring 35 Reds players spread between 1938 and ’39. His no-hit feat is mentioned on the back of the two cards that feature him.
Vander Meer didn’t appear on a mainstream baseball card until 1941 and he has two rookie cards issued that season: a beautiful card showing him with a huge smile, and a polar opposite 1941 Double Play that features a frowning Vander Meer joined by the Cubs’ Linus Frey.
Except for graded examples at the higher end of the scale, the more popular Play Ball card can usually be had for around $100 or less. While over 240 have been graded by PSA alone, just 43 of the Double Play card have been examined by the company.
Few cards were issued during World War II but he returned to cardboard in the late 1940s, with his no-hitter featured in the 1948 Swell Sport Thrills set and he’s also part of ’49 Bowman. The 1948-49 Leaf Vander Meer is a unique horizontal image of him delivering a pitch. Difficult to find in high grades, it can be found at more pedestrian levels for under $75.
Vander Meer’s last full season came with the Cubs in 1950 but he did appear in one game for Cleveland during the 1951 campaign and his last card as an active player was produced that year. Of course, the text on back leads off with his accomplishment from 13 years earlier. It can be had for a very modest investment.
Vander Meer died in 1997 and spent many weekends in the preceding years signing autographs through the mail and at shows, happy to oblige by inscribing his feat on photos, bats, balls and programs.