Today in Baseball History: Len Barker throws a perfect game

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Baseball in Cleveland in the 1980s was a pretty dreary affair.

The Indians finished .500 or better just twice that decade. They would complete their 26th through their 35th straight seasons without a postseason appearance (that streak would go to 41 before they won the AL pennant in 1995). While they got some decent seasons that decade from the likes of Toby Harrah, Mike Hargrove, Joe Carter, Bert Blyleven and Brett Butler — and while they got a here-today-gone-tomorrow star turn from a kid named Joe Charboneau — it was not a star-studded decade either.

Arguably the club’s greatest highlight of the entire decade took place on this day in 1981. That’s when Indians starter Len Barker tossed a perfect game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Municipal Stadium.

Barker, who was 25 at the time, was tall — 6’4″ — and had consistent mid-90s gas, which was fairly rare in baseball in those days. He had won 19 games for a sixth place Indians team the year before and had led the American League in strikeouts. That was a bit deceptive, however, as his ERA was an unremarkable 4.17 (99 ERA+) and he had also led the league in wild pitches.

Those wild pitches in 1980 were no fluke. Barker was a wild guy who sometimes put it together and sometimes didn’t. When he had it, he was great. Indeed, he had flirted with two no-hitters in 1980 before they were broken up late. When he didn’t have it, however, he might throw the ball over the backstop. Which he had actually done once in Boston in 1978. At the time he told the press when he was in the Instructional League a pitch slipped and he threw it over the press box.

It was cold in Cleveland on the night of Friday May 15, 1981 — 49 degrees and drizzling at first pitch — but Barker was riding one of his hot streaks. While he gave up five runs in six and a third in his first start of the season on April 15 he had tossed a seven-hit shutout against the Royals on April 22. He followed that up by allowing one run in a complete game victory over the White Sox on May 2 and and allowed one run over eight in a no-decision on May 9. The cold early season weather and having a lot of extra rest between starts was definitely helping him out.

Only 7,290 fans paid to get in to see the Tribe take on the visiting Blue Jays that evening and many of them were disguised as empty seats. A lot of the Blue Jays hitters probably wished they were somewhere else too, but it’s not like they were likely to have a ton of success no matter who they faced. Toronto was the weakest-hitting club in the major leagues heading into that game, with a team batting average of .218. They had suffered 21 straight scoreless innings entering the game as well. They had also struggled against the Indians already, with new Indians ace Bert Blyleven having taken a no-hitter into the ninth inning against Toronto only nine days earlier. Between Barker’s heat, the cold weather, and the cold Blue Jays’ bats, things were lining up pretty good for the Indians’ pitcher that evening.

The legendary Dave Duncan, then the Indians pitching coach, told Sports Illustrated at the time that he felt like something special was going to happen based on what he saw from Barker in the bullpen before the game. The heat was there as it always was, but Barker’s curveball looked better than ever. “He started out slow,” Duncan said, “but as he went along, his curve-ball got better and better. It became awesome. It wasn’t breaking much, but the rotation was so tight it was almost the perfect curve.”

The perfect game was almost over on the first play of the game when Toronto’s speedy infielder, Alfredo Griffin, hit a slow roller that died between the mound and second base. Cleveland shortstop Tom Veryzer made a slick play on the ball, however, fielded it behind the mound and threw it to first to get Griffin. Barker then retired Lloyd Moseby and George Bell to end the first.

In the second inning Cleveland centerfielder Rick Manning had to make a long run to haul in a sinking liner off the bat of Damaso Garcia. That was the pattern through the first three innings, in fact — atom balls — as Barker was, intentionally or not, pitching to contact. Indeed, the reigning AL strikeout king didn’t fan a single batter until the fourth inning.

If those lack of strikeouts was because of something lacking in his fastball that night, Barker and his catcher Ron Hassey figured it out by the fourth inning. That’s when Barker basically switched to all curveballs, tossing just 17 fastballs after the fourth. He struck out 11 batters — all swinging — between the fourth and the ninth and didn’t go to a single three-ball count. Only eight Toronto batters got as much as a two-ball count. He ended up only needing 103 pitches in the entire game. Hassey, speaking to Sports Illustrated in 1981: “By the fifth inning his breaking ball was so good we figured that’s what we’d pretty much stay with. By the ninth inning we decided if there was going to be a base hit, it would have to come off a breaking pitch.”

His defense continued to help him as well. Third Baseman Toby Harrah dove into the stands to catch a Willie Upshaw foul pop in the fifth. Second Baseman Duane Kuiper went to his right to handle a short-hop line drive off the bat of Rick Bosetti in the sixth, then ranged far to his left to field a bouncer off of Griffin’s bat in the seventh just barely throwing him out.

Barker would later admit that while he was cruising in innings one through eight, he began to feel the pressure in the ninth.

“I was so nervous at the end that I dropped the ball on the mound one time. My stomach was a wreck,” he told Sports Illustrated. Also in the ninth, whoever was operating the Municipal Stadium scoreboard flashed a trivia tidbit about how the Blue Jays were one of only two teams in all of baseball who had never been no-hit.  “I thought we had him in the ninth,” Toronto pitcher Mark Bomback would later say. He noticed Barker drop the ball and said, “he was so nervous. Then when they flashed the trivia question [on the scoreboard], I was sure he was jinxed.”

Barker hung a curveball — one of his only bad pitches of the night — to Bosetti to lead off the ninth, but Bosetti only got a piece of it and fouled out. Then Al Woods, batting for Danny Ainge — yes, that Danny Ainge — struck out on three pitches. Finally another pinch hitter, Ernie Whitt, lofted a fly ball to center that Rick Manning caught for the final out.

Perfection achieved.

It was the first perfect game in the majors since Catfish Hunter, then of the Oakland A’s, beat the Minnesota Twins on May 8, 1968. That also meant it was the first perfect game against a lineup with a DH. The 1981 Blue Jays may have had a lot of easy outs in that lineup, but they had no easy-out pitchers.

Barker would go on to have a 1981 season that looked a lot like his 1980 season in a lot of ways. He’d have a few bumpy starts after the perfecto, but after the seven-week players’ strike his early season dominance helped him make the All-Star team that year. He again led the AL in strikeouts and again had a sub-100 ERA+. Overall his 1982 season was probably his best, when he went 15-11 with a 3.90 ERA (106 ERA+).

After a rough start to the 1983 season, Barker was involved in a trade that would end up being his second-biggest claim to fame, primarily because of how lopsided the deal was. On August 28 Ted Turner and the Braves, who were fighting to win a second straight NL West crown, acquired him for Brett Butler, Brook Jacoby, and Rick Behenna. Butler would go on to star for the Indians, Giants, and Dodgers over the course of a 17-year career that would not end until 1997. Jacoby would be a two-time All-Star who would hit 120 homers in an Indians jersey.

Barker, however, basically flamed out. From 1983 through 1987 he posted a 4.88 ERA while going 20-34. He made out financially, however. Barker was a rental in 1983, poised to hit free agency, but the Braves signed him to a $4 million contract before the 1984 season. That didn’t pan out for them, and they released him before the 1986 season. He’d spend that season as a minor leaguer in the Expos system. He last pitched in the majors for the Brewers in 1987, working in 11 games.

But he’ll always have that perfect game.

La Russa steps down as White Sox manager over heart issue

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CHICAGO — Tony La Russa stepped down as manager of the Chicago White Sox on Monday because of a heart issue, ending a disappointing two-year run in the same spot where the Hall of Famer got his first job as a big league skipper.

La Russa, a three-time World Series champion who turns 78 on Tuesday, missed the final 34 games with the underachieving White Sox. He left the team on Aug. 30 and doctors ultimately told him to stay out of the dugout.

La Russa has a pacemaker implanted in February and doctors later found another heart problem that he has not detailed.

“It has become obvious that the length of the treatment and recovery process for this second health issue makes it impossible for me to be the White Sox manager in 2023,” he said in a statement. “The timing of this announcement now enables the front office to include filling the manager position with their other offseason priorities.”

Chicago began the season with World Series aspirations but was plagued by injuries and inconsistent play. It was 79-80 heading into Monday night’s game against Minnesota.

“Our team’s record this season is the final reality. It is an unacceptable disappointment. There were some pluses, but too many minuses,” La Russa said. “I was hired to provide positive, difference-making leadership and support. Our record is proof. I did not do my job.”

Bench coach Miguel Cairo took over after La Russa stepped away. The White Sox showed a spark right after the change, winning 10 of 14. But they dropped eight straight in late September, dashing their playoff hopes.

La Russa, who is close friends with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, was a surprise hire in October 2020, and he directed the team to the AL Central title last year.

But the White Sox sputtered throughout much of 2022, and there were chants of “Fire Tony! Fire Tony!” at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“At no time have I been disappointed or upset with White Sox fans, including those who at times chanted `Fire Tony,”‘ La Russa said. “They come to games with passion for our team and a strong desire to win. Loud and excited when we win, they rightly are upset when we play poorly.”

All-Star shortstop Tim Anderson and sluggers Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert missed significant time because of injuries. Catcher Yasmani Grandal and third baseman Yoan Moncada also had health issues, and they underperformed when they were on the field.

There were embarrassing breakdowns, too, like when the White Sox ran themselves into the first 8-5 triple play in major league history during a loss to Minnesota on July 4.

La Russa continued to be a lightning rod for fans who weren’t thrilled with his hiring in the first place. His lineups came under question as did his decisions in games.

Some fans chanted for La Russa’s dismissal following a strange call for an intentional walk to to the Dodgers’ Trea Turner despite a 1-2 count on June 9. Bennett Sousa had just bounced an 0-2 slider, allowing the runner to advance from first to second.

With the base open, La Russa chose to walk Turner even though there were two strikes. It backfired when Max Muncy smacked a three-run homer, propelling Los Angeles to an 11-9 victory.

Another moment that raised eyebrows happened early in the 2021 season.

During a 1-0 loss to Cincinnati, La Russa was unaware of a rule that would have allowed him to use Jose Abreu as the automatic runner at second base rather than closer Liam Hendriks in the 10th inning.

With a 2,900-2,514 record over 35 years with Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis, La Russa trails only Connie Mack on baseball’s career wins list. He moved past John McGraw last season.

But there were big questions about whether La Russa was the right person for the job when the White Sox hired him to replace Rick Renteria. He hadn’t filled out a lineup card since 2011, when St. Louis beat Texas in the World Series. There were doubts about how someone known more for his scowl than smile would mesh with a fun-loving team that had just delivered the White Sox’s first playoff appearance since 2008.

Then, shortly after his hiring, news surfaced of an arrest on misdemeanor DUI charges.

La Russa blew out a tire on the Lexus he was driving in a collision with a curb that February in Arizona, after going to dinner with friends. The case was filed on Oct. 28, one day before the White Sox announced La Russa’s hiring.

He ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charge of reckless driving and was sentenced to one day of home detention, a fine of nearly $1,400 and 20 hours of community service.

La Russa also pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in Florida in 2007 after police found him asleep and smelling of alcohol inside his running sport-utility vehicle at a stoplight.

La Russa captured championships with Oakland in 1989 and the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011. The former big league infielder and Sparky Anderson are the only managers to win the World Series in the American and National leagues.

He got his first major league managing job at age 34 when the White Sox promoted him from Triple-A to replace the fired Don Kessinger during the 1979 season. He took over that August and led them to a 522-510 record over parts of eight seasons.

The 1983 team won 99 games on the way to the AL West championship – Chicago’s first playoff appearance since the 1959 Go-Go White Sox won the pennant. But La Russa was fired in 1986 by then-general manager Ken Harrelson after the White Sox got off to a 26-38 start, a move Reinsdorf long regretted.