On April 21, 2012, Chicago White Sox pitcher Phillip Humber retired 27 consecutive batters in a game against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington. A rare feat commonly referred to as a perfect game.
Humber’s masterpiece was the 21st perfect game in well over 100 years of Major League Baseball and the third in White Sox franchise history. Mark Buehrle tossed one for Chicago in 2009, but it was the one 90 years earlier that left an imprint on baseball language and has a link to the Wichita Falls area.
An east bound drive of just under 50 miles down U.S. Highway 82 will take you from Wichita Falls to Nocona, a small town better known for boots than baseball. Leather goods are the signature product of Nocona, but the rural community of around 3,000 people has left a considerable mark on sports.
Cadmus McCall founded Nokona Leather Goods (now Nokona Athletic Good Company), still the only major baseball glove maker producing all of it’s gloves in the United States. Bob Storey initiated the production of Nokona baseball gloves in 1934 and made design changes that are still in use today, as well as changes to football equipment. And, of course, no conversation about Nocona and sports is complete without “Jackrabbit” Jack Crain, a member of the University of Texas-Austin Athletic Hall of Fame.
There is one notable name from Nocona’s past that has faded into history a bit. One that is also important to the Chicago White Sox and the perfect game. His name is Charles Robertson.
Nocona High School’s graduating class of 1915 had some interesting options when they took their first steps into the future. Some would go to work locally for H.J. Justin and Sons making boots or on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. Like any other year, some would opt for military service or to attend college.
Charlie Robertson chose to continue his education at Austin College in Sherman, Texas where he would also earn a place on the baseball team. Armed with a good fastball and a big, slow curve, Robertson was good enough to attract the attention of the Chicago White Sox and signed a contract with the team after graduating.
Robertson’s first appearance for the White Sox came in 1919, a significant year for the history of the team.
This was the year of the infamous “Black Sox” scandal, when eight White Sox players were accused of conspiring with gamblers to purposely lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Despite the participation of some of those eight players being questionable, and the fact they were found not guilty by a grand jury, they were all banned for life from Major League Baseball.
Of course, Charlie Robertson played no part in the scandal and was barely a footnote in the 1919 season for the White Sox. In his one appearance with the team he pitched two innings, giving up two runs and striking out one while taking the loss. The infamous season would somewhat play a part in Robertson’s return to the big league club.
For the next three seasons the big right hander dwelled in the minor leagues waiting for another chance. In 1922, Robertson got that chance when White Sox manager William “Kid” Gleason put him on the roster. The White Sox were largely dismantled after the scandal and, in days long before free agency, were finding it hard to piece a team together.
Gleason’s attempt to match young players like Robertson and pitcher Ted Blankenship with veterans like catcher Ray Shalk and second baseman Eddie Collins had mixed results. The team finished fifth in what was then an eight team league. However, it was only 15 games into the season that baseball history would be made.
On April 30, 1922, Gleason gave the ball to Nocona’s Charlie Robertson for only his fourth big league start and fifth appearance overall. He would be facing the Tigers at Detroit’s Navin Field, a park that separated some fans from the action with only a stretched out rope and the faith they would stay behind it.
Overall, the Tigers were not a powerhouse team, finishing the season in third place. However, the Detroit lineup had more than it’s share of notable hitters.
Along with players like Bobby Veach, Topper Rigney, and Harry Heilmann, there was the legendary Ty Cobb. The veteran outfielder was in the last few years of a career that would see him credited with 90 Major League Baseball records, including most batting titles and most career hits.
Serving as player/manager for the Tigers in 1922, Cobb was known for being vicious both on and off the field. It’s unlikely he gave a second thought to the 26 year old kid from Montague County when he walked onto the field that day. It’s also recorded fact that Cobb would not forget the name Charlie Robertson for the rest of his life.
The first inning of the game moved quickly, with both the White Sox and Tigers failing to get a base runner. Chicago came out better in the second inning, scoring the only runs of the game.
Detroit pitcher Herman Pillette walked White Sox right fielder Harry Hooper to start the inning. Chicago left fielder Johnny Mostil followed with the first hit of the game, a single to put runners on first and second. A sacrifice bunt by center fielder Amos Strunk moved the runners up before first baseman Earl Sheely singled to bring them in and give Chicago a 2-0 lead.
Under normal circumstance, a game where all the scoring takes place in the second inning wouldn’t make much of a story. On this day in 1922 it most certainly would.
The Tigers failed to get a hit in the bottom of the second and again in the bottom of the third. They also failed to draw a walk or reach on an error. Three innings without a base runner against an unknown rookie prompted Cobb to ask the umpire to examine one of the balls to make sure Robertson wasn’t cheating. After finding nothing suspicious, the game continued. So did the outs.
While the White Sox added five more hits to their total and gained base runners from another walk and a Detroit error, the Tigers failed to reach base. Frustrated, Cobb asked the umpire to examine the ball two more times during the course of the game. The future Hall of Famer even insisted on inspecting Robertson’s uniform himself to see if he could find some kind of foreign matter used to doctor the ball.
Neither Cobb or the umpire found anything unusual and Robertson continued to pitch.
With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Tigers’ pinch hitter Johnny Bassler hit a fly ball to left which was easily handled by Mostil for the 27th consecutive out. The Tigers failed to reach base by hit, walk, or error.
Both players on the field and the fans in attendance knew it was a special day and something they might never see again. This kind of pitching performance had only been accomplished four times before in the then 46 year history of major league baseball. While a no hitter was uncommon, not allowing a base runner of any kind was so rare there was no official name for it at the time.
In describing Robertson’s performance against Detroit, a Chicago sportswriter used the words “perfect game” when reporting the results at Navin Field that day. While the term had been used randomly by other writers, it was the story about Robertson’s gem that garnered some national attention. The term “perfect game” caught on and is still used today.
Ty Cobb remained less than impressed. The indignant player/manager insisted Robertson cheated and sent three balls used during the game to American League president Ban Johnson. Despite Johnson dismissing any charges of tampering with the baseball, Cobb would stand firm on his claim. He would also stand alone.
Charlie finished the 1922 season with the best record of his career, standing at 14-15. The Nocona alum pitched for the White Sox through the 1925 season before being released by the team. He was picked up by the St. Louis Browns where he pitched for one season, then spent two seasons with the Boston Braves where he ended his eight year career. Robertson never won more games than he lost in a single season, finishing his career with a lifetime record of 49-80.
Today, the uniform Robertson wore when he pitched his perfect game is displayed in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
While the perfect game has become more common, it is still rare. It was 34 years between Robertson’s game and Don Larson, a former Wichita Falls Spudder, tossing a perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 World Series. In contrast, there were four perfect games including and up to Buehrle’s in 2009 and Humber’s in 2012. An active three years for baseball’s rarest feat.
However, consider that in three years between 1969 and 1972 there were 12 men who walked on the moon. And none of them ever went to Nocona High School.