In Search of Johnny VanderMeer

They say records are made to be broken. After all, Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game record. No one ever dreamed that would happen! Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa broke Roger Maris’ home run record. It seems logical that sooner or later someone is bound to come along and break every long-standing Major League record. Well… maybe. There is one record in baseball history that may never be broken! It may be tied, but broken… I, along with many other baseball fans, seriously doubt it.

The record to which I am referring is the back-to-back no hitters pitched in 1938 by Johnny Vander Meer of the Cincinnati Reds. It was a feat that earned the 23 year-old southpaw the nickname “Double No-Hit” Vander Meer. This amazing accomplishment, that I believe will never-to-be-broken, is one of the reasons I collect Johnny Vander Meer baseball cards.

Johnny Vander Meer was raised in Midland Park, New Jersey – a small town settled by Dutch pioneers whose love affair with our national past-time takes priority only after love of God, family, nation and love of a job well done. It was when my wife and I moved to Midland Park that I first learned about Johnny – and became fascinated with his story; small town boy becomes Major Leaguer, sets record that no one will ever break, is loved by his home town and helps local kids with scholarship money and good deeds. All that, in and of itself, is reason to collect his cards. However, it wasn’t until I attended “Johnny Vander Meer Day” – a special dedication ceremony held on April 28, 1996 in the township’s library for the newly created Johnny Vander Meer Memorabilia Exhibit that my appreciation for my small town’s hero – and my quest for his cards – truly began.

The dedication event was well publicized. The small library was jam-packed with fans of all ages, sportswriters and childhood and life-long friends of “Vandy.” The 81 year-old Vander Meer was on hand for the occasion as well. The mayor and a few local dignitaries acknowledged Johnny’s baseball record and career – and dedicated the display. Johnny was then given center stage. He spoke fondly of the town that gave him his start in baseball and the people whose love he returned. He was truly a gentleman.

As fate would have it, I discovered earlier that Vandy was my Father-in-law’s favorite player as a kid growing up in Cincinnati. So I came prepared with a brand new baseball which Vandy signed for him, and a 1994 Ted Williams Collection Vander Meer card which he signed as well. Johnny Vander Meer was a humble and kind man. He stayed for over an hour signing autographs and talking baseball with everyone.

After the dedication ceremony, I walked over to the large hand-crafted, solid oak and glass memorabilia display. It held Johnny’s baseball uniforms, a pitcher’s mound, ice skates from his childhood, game balls, numerous photographs, awards, and other cool stuff, but to my surprise not a single baseball card! I imagined hundreds of kids throughout the coming years, looking at this display, dreaming that maybe some day they too would have the good fortune of making it to the Big Leagues, and as they stood there admiring artifacts from this man’s career, their young eyes would miss out on one of the staples of being a professional ball player – having your image appear on a baseball card! It was at that moment that my mission to get a Vander Meer baseball card for that display started!

I visited some local card stores and surfed the Internet in search of a Johnny Vander Meer baseball card. And, in a short period of time, I managed to find a few, and proudly made them part of that display.

In the past three years, I’ve been trying to collect every Vander Meer card ever made for my own personal collection. To date, I have obtained the following cards:

1941 Play ball (#56)
1941 Double Play (#6)
1941 Homogenized Bread
1951 Bowman (#223)
1961 Fleer Baseball Greats (#167)
1992 Sporting News Conlon Collection (#368)
1994 Ted Williams Collection (#24)
1988 Pacific Trading Card Co. (#30)

And the search goes on.

Sadly, only a year and a half after the dedication of the display, Johnny Vander Meer died at the age of 82. But the story of “Johnny and me” didn’t end there. The New York Times wrote about Johnny and Midland Park. The story celebrated the relationship between the town and the ballplayer and featured a photograph of a young Vander Meer, age 23, with a retired Babe Ruth. I immediately called the paper and found that I was able to purchase a copy of the photo. I then contacted the library to see if they wanted a copy. They passed this information along to Johnny’s life-long best friend. He was an 85 year old gentleman who has lived all his life in our town. He called me and said he wanted a copy of the picture. What he offered next surprised me! He said that when the photograph arrived he would give me a private viewing of his own Vander Meer memorabilia collection.

I called him immediately upon receiving the picture in the mail. His collection of photos, plaques, press clippings, letters from Presidents, awards, etc. was very impressive. These items held even more meaning for me than those in the library because they represented the sentiment of two friends who grew up loving and playing baseball together. Johnny’s friend was thrilled to add the picture of Vandy and The Babe to his collection. As I was about to leave, he proceeded to hand me a game ball marked “2-Hitter” from Johnny’s Minor League career. The ball is dated July 23, 1936 and marked Durham 5 – Asheville 2, Vander Meer vs. Gouch, Struck Out 20 – League Record, 3 assists, 3 hits, 1 run. It was a very gracious gift. I told him I couldn’t take it, but he insisted, so I gratefully accepted.

That ball sits proudly on my bookcase next to a 1941 Playball “Vandy” Vander Meer card. Every time I look at them I am reminded of a man from a small town who accomplished something stellar in a game played by boys and men – and I know that dreams really do come true. And that’s what baseball – and card collecting – is all about.

Sports Hall of Fame of NJ
Fireball Southpaw Johnny Vander Meer, who was from my town, was recently inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey for his feat of pitching back to back no hitters in 1938. It is said to be the only record in baseball history that may never be broken.

I had the privilege to be a guest at the event at the invitation of Johnny’s sister. Here I am at the induction ceremony with Vandy’s plaque and his lifelong best friend (and my pal) Mr. Dick Jeffer, who passed away at 96 in 2009.


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