On April 30, 1922, White Sox pitcher Charlie Robertson took the hill in Detroit to face a formidable assemblage led by 12-time batting champion Ty Cobb. Cobb, the Tigers’ center fielder and manager, was showing no signs of slowing down at age 35. Flanking him in the outfield were Bobby Veach in left and Harry Heilmann in right. This trio comprised the three-four-five combination in the batting order and was responsible for most of Detroit’s offensive production. Cobb would hit .401 that year, Veach .327, and Heilmann .356, and the three would combine for 317 runs batted in.
A crowd in excess of 25,000 was on hand, and officials at Navin Field (as Tiger Stadium was known in those days) found themselves with more fans than seats. As was common practice at the time, they simply roped off sections of the outfield and put the extra fans there. Any ball that rolled or bounced beyond the ropes would be called a ground-rule double.
Robertson was still a rookie, having spent the past three years in the minors after pitching (and losing) one game for the Sox in 1919. But he pitched like a wily old veteran against the Tigers, mixing a lively fastball with an assortment of slower stuff and demonstrating pinpoint control. He retired Cobb on a grounder to third, a fly to short left, and a strikeout. He retired Veach on a deep drive to left (Johnny Mostil making the catch just inside the ropes), a high pop fly to right, and a strikeout. He retired Heilmann on a fly to right, a tap back to the mound, and a foul pop to first.
You get the picture. Robertson faced 27 batters and retired them all for a perfect game. Six Tigers fanned, seven grounded out, six flied out, and—this was the real measure of Robertson’s effectiveness—eight hit pop-ups on the infield. The more frustrated the Tigers got, the harder they swung; and the harder they swung, the more weak pop flies they hit.
Hoping in vain to upset the rookie, the Tigers complained ceaselessly from the fifth inning on that he was illegally doctoring the ball. First Heilmann, then Cobb, demanded that the home-plate umpire search Robertson’s cap and uniform for a foreign substance. When nothing was found, Cobb had the umpire inspect the Sox first baseman, Earl Sheely, also to no avail. (It was Sheely whose second-inning single had knocked in Harry Hooper and Mostil with what proved to be the only runs of the game).
Late in the game, the Detroit fans took to cheering for Robertson. When pinch-hitter Johnny Bassler flied to Mostil for the final out, a group of fans carried Robertson off the field on their shoulders. He had pitched the third perfect game of the modern era, joining Cy Young and Addie Joss in a very exclusive club. There would be no new members until 1956, when Don Larsen pitched his famous perfect game in the World Series. White Sox lefty Mark Buehrle became the 16th member in 2009.
From absolute perfection, of course, there is only one direction to go, and Charlie Robertson’s subsequent career proved the point nicely. He lost more games than he won every year, allowing better than a hit per inning and walking more batters than he struck out. He finished up with a record of 49-80 over eight seasons. Later he regretted having played major-league baseball at all. “It is ridiculous,” he said, “for any young man with qualifications to make good in another profession to waste time in professional athletics.” But where else could one be perfect, even if only for one day?
Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert