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.