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As soon as he came out on the field to begin his warmup pitches, he was conscious of the crowd. Brooklyn's Ebbets Field was not exactly a joyful place for young Johnny Vander Meer. The Flatbush fans—the loudest and loyalest in baseball history—loved to mock, his pitching motion, his "rocking chair," as the sportswriters dubbed it. "One" the crowd would chant as he dipped down, "two" as his arms came overhead, "three" as the right leg kicked, "four" as the torso rocked forward and the ball was released. Anytime Vander Meer pitched in Flatbush it was an adventure, but this night was something more.
Maybe it was the lights. It was the first official major league game ever played at night in New York City or anywhere outside Cincinnati, for that matter. The 615 floodlights tinted the grass a surrealistic green, and already, in the dugouts, the players were grumbling.
"This screwy schedule gets your stomach shot to hell," said one Dodger. "You're eating a steak dinner at midnight and colliding with yourself getting up for batting drill the next day."
More likely it was not the night game but that other thing, the no-hitter, that was in the mainstream of Vandy's consciousness. Four days earlier he had pitched it against the Boston Bees in Cincinnati, and the fans in Flatbush were letting him know they knew all about it—with razzberry jam Brooklyn style.
Official paid attendance that night was 38,748—one of the largest crowds ever to attend a game at Ebbets Field. Three bands performed on the field, and Jesse Owens, the Olympic star, gave an exhibition of running as if to prove to what depths sports heroes can be reduced in short periods of time. Only two years after his historic Olympic triumphs in Hitler's Germany, Jesse was barely getting along as a promoter of all-Negro baseball and basketball teams. Trying to make ends meet, he moonlighted by doing exhibitions.
It was 9:23 when the first pitch was thrown to Cincinnati's leadoff batter, Second Baseman Lonnie Frey. In the third inning the Reds scored four runs, thanks mainly to Frank McCormick's three-run homer into the left-field bleachers. Meanwhile, although the chanting fans were doing their best to psych him out, Vander Meer hung goose egg after goose egg next to Brooklyn's name on the scoreboard. The sixth inning passed, then the seventh, and still the Dodgers didn't have a run—or hit. However, by now Vander Meer was thinking about it—and so were his teammates.
Then, in the bottom of the eighth inning, a strange thing happened. The Brooklyn crowd got to its feet, not to further harass the man with the rocking-chair pitch, but to cheer him. As Vander Meer walked toward the mound for the bottom of the ninth, illuminated by 92 million candlepower, the crowd was beside itself. The first Dodger batter, Buddy Hassett, hit a slow roller down the first-base line and Vandy tagged him out.
Two to go.
Then Babe Phelps walked. So did Cookie Lavagetto. And Dolf Camilli. On the mound Vander Meer looked anxiously at the Reds' dugout and, sure enough, here came the manager, Bill McKechnie. A pitcher began warming up in the Reds' bullpen. The crowd yelled, "Leave him in," which is exactly what McKechnie intended to do.
"John, you're trying to put a little too much on the ball," said McKechnie in reassuring tones. "Just throw your stuff. Don't give up anything cheap."