The Dodger Stadium scoreboard says it all after lefty Clayton Kershaw's no-hitter against the Rockies on June 18. (Victor Decolongon / Getty Images)
George Bradley was a right-handed pitcher who once upon a time pitched the greatest game in history. Of course, in the style of ballplayers, he had prominent facial hair. He displayed a fancy walrus mustache, according to his vintage photograph on his baseball card, disseminated by the Old Judge Cigarette Factory.
On this day, pitching for the St. Louis Brown Stockings, Bradley held the Hartford Dark Blues without a hit in a 2-0 victory. It was the first official no-hitter in the history of Major League Baseball.
You could look it up.
The date was July 15, 1876.
This was considerably before Bill James learned to count to two. So it was somewhat before the creation of Sabermetrics with its collection of numbers freaks. This is the group of baseball intelligentsia who pay homage to James with the mystical belief that statistics never mattered until such arcane data as WAR and OPS were concocted.
Bradley’s gem also was somewhat before Clayton Kershaw’s recent no-hitter for the Dodgers was classified as the second-best baseball game ever pitched. If not the best. This was proclaimed in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, by a so-called expert on CBS Sports’ website and by a writer with ESPN.
Their claim was based on Game Score, a metric that James conjured up to gauge pitching efficiency. He did it by gathering such facts as strikeouts, walks, hits allowed, outs recorded, etc., and placing them into a blender. It included nothing about quality of opponent.
The result is, according to Game Score, that only Kerry Wood had pitched a better game in the 138-year history of Major League Baseball than Kershaw did June 18, 2014. And Wood actually pitched a one-hitter.
For some peculiar reason that has eluded the Sabermetricians, there has been a glut of no-hitters in recent baseball history. Thirteen of the 285 no-hitters, the list started by George Bradley, have been pitched in the past three seasons. Seven of them in 2012 and three last year.
And now three this season — so far — by Josh Beckett, Kershaw and Tim Lincecum this past Wednesday.
While Kershaw’s no-hitter was one official error from a perfect game with 15 strikeouts — certainly a masterpiece — Lincecum’s evoked history. We learned quickly about some ancient baseball ghosts. From more than 100 years ago.
Kershaw was praised nationally for his poise, the fact that he has won two Cy Young Awards in the National League plus the claims that it might have been the best pitching performance ever. By coincidence, Lincecum also happened to have won two Cy Young Awards for the San Francisco Giants. Before Kershaw won his two.
Lincecum pitched his no-hitter against the rinky-dink San Diego Padres — just as he did in 2013. He became the second guy to pitch two no-hitters against the same opponent. So the history book quickly told us that Addie Joss pitched his first no-hitter for the Cleveland Naps vs. the Chicago White Sox in 1908, and then a perfect game against the same team in 1910.
And beyond that, Lincecum matched Christy Mathewson by pitching two no-hitters for the Giants’ franchise. Mathewson pitched his two for the New York Giants in 1901 and 1905.
History is wonderful — even if WHIP and ERA+ did not exist when Mathewson and Joss were pitching three decades after George Bradley. And a century plus a decade before Kershaw and Lincecum.
Lucky old me, living in California as I now do, I was privileged to watch most of Kershaw’s no-hitter on high-definition, restricted Dodgers’ television. I saw the 0 in the H column and stayed turned. And despite Game Score classifying Kershaw’s performance as No. 2 in all the 300,000 and more ballgames ever pitched, I have one nagging doubt about it.
Did a magnificently pitched one-hitter become a slightly smudged no-hitter?
Kershaw was aiming for a perfect game into the seventh against the woebegone Colorado Rockies. Then Corey Dickerson hit a slow grounder toward shortstop. Hanley Ramirez dashed forward and fielded the ball. Ramirez in a flash threw toward first. The throw pulled Adrian Gonzalez off the bag and the ball bounced to the fence. Dickerson wound up at second base.
Even Vin Scully, the beloved TV announcer of for the Dodgers, hesitated. Wondering. Briefly. Then the call of the official scorer quickly was announced. An error.
I wondered, too. If the play had occurred in the first inning, it well might have been called the classic hit-and-an-error by the official scorer. Unfortunately, nobody in the L.A. media bothered to interview the official scorer as to why he called the play an error, to my knowledge. A scorer is supposed to call a play in the seventh just he would in the first or second — even in a pending no-hitter.
The play was put into perspective — by Kershaw himself, who was deservedly thrilled with his achievement.
“Under normal circumstances, that’s pretty close to a hit,” Kershaw said postgam, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times.
A whole new ballgame
Kershaw is not the normal pitcher. All of L.A. thinks he’s the best in baseball, with talent close to Justin Verlander’s. All of L.A. could be right. The Sabermetricians will figure it out.
But whether this no-hitter was the second best game ever pitched. Who knows?
George Bradley posted some. Best game ever? Sure. For awhile. It was the first no-hitter when the National League — and thus MLB — was established in 1876.
That premier season, Bradley won 45 games and lost 19, according to Baseball-Reference.com. He pitched 573 innings. Apparently, managers did not bother with the pitch count back then. Bradley threw 16 shutouts, including the no-hitter against the Dark Blues. He started 64 games and pitched complete games in 63 of them. He had a 1.23 ERA.
Feed all Bradley’s stats into Bill James’s magic metric mixer and what pops out?
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Sundays at detroitnews.com.