This article was originally published in “NO-HITTERS” (SABR, 2017), edited by Bill Nowlin.
After throwing the third perfect game in American League history, Charlie Robertson said he didn’t realize the magnitude of his feat until “that funny little fat guy,” pinch-hitter Johnny Bassler, came to bat for the pitcher with two outs in the ninth inning.i Robertson admitted that he was barely paying attention to the Detroit Tigers lineup — and what a lineup it was, led by future Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Harry Heilmann, with a team batting average over .300.
Bassler lifted a lazy fly ball to left field for the game’s final out and set off one of baseball’s most unlikely celebrations. In his fourth career start, on three days’ rest, the Chicago White Sox’ rookie right-hander Robertson earned his second major-league win in historic fashion.
His performance was so unbelievable that nobody — not his opponents, nor even some of his own teammates — believed he could have done it without a little subterfuge. Even before the game ended, Robertson was accused of applying crude oil, grease, or rubber cement to the baseball during his masterpiece.2 While he was officially absolved of any wrongdoing, he never again reached the heights he did on April 30, 1922, in front of 25,000 fans at Detroit’s Navin Field.
Entering the game, Robertson had shown no signs that he was capable of perfection. He had recorded his first career victory (and first complete game) on April 26 in a lackluster 7-3 win over the Cleveland Indians, scattering 12 hits and walking four. With manager Kid Gleason’s pitching rotation still decimated by the Black Sox Scandal, that was good enough to earn the 26-year-old Robertson another start against the Tigers four days later.
Under player-manager Ty Cobb, the Tigers were one of the best-hitting clubs in major-league history. In 1921 Detroit set an American League record with a team batting average of .316. Although they were off to a tough start in 1922, losing 10 of their first 14 games as they prepared to face Robertson, the Tigers would go on to hit .306 that season — one of just two .300-hitting teams to ever be the victim of a no-hitter.3 Cobb himself finished above .400 for the third and final time in his illustrious career, while Heilmann, Bassler, Bobby Veach, Topper Rigney, and Lu Blue all hit above .300. “That Detroit club,” Robertson later said, “looked as pleasant as a cage full of lions.”4
But after Robertson set down the first 12 hitters in order, the Tigers got angry. In the fifth inning Heilmann called timeout during his at-bat and asked umpire Dick Nallin to inspect the ball. Nallin found nothing wrong, but the Tigers continued to protest. At one point, the Chicago Tribune reported, Cobb went out to first base and looked at Earl Sheely’s glove to see if he was concealing any foreign substances. Robertson’s uniform was also inspected during the game.5
Robertson relied mostly on a high fastball and uncharacteristically good control to induce the Detroit hitters to pop the ball up. Only five balls left the infield, which was fortunate because the outfield boundary was closer than usual that afternoon. The overflow crowd of 25,000 spilled into the outfield grass, and spectators were standing just a hundred feet or so from where the fielders were positioned. In the second inning the White Sox’ Johnny Mostil chased down a long drive by Bobby Veach and “the crowd in that sector spread to make the left fielder’s feat easier to perform.”6 Any ball hit into the crowd would have been a ground-rule double. Two batters later, Chicago right fielder Harry Hooper made a difficult running catch of a hard-hit ball by Bob Jones to end the inning. The Tigers did not come close to a base hit again.
In the seventh, “when they rose for the traditional stretch,” the hometown Tiger fans tried one last time to rattle Robertson, who was protecting a 2-0 lead thanks to Earl Sheely’s two-run single in the second inning.7 After Robertson “set down their favorites, their sentiment quickly changed.”8 By the ninth, Detroit fans were openly cheering for Robertson to make history.
Cobb sent up the left-handed Danny Clark to hit for his shortstop Rigney to open the ninth inning. Robertson fanned him, one of his six strikeouts that day. Clyde Manion lunged at the first pitch and popped up to White Sox second baseman Eddie Collins for the second out. Another pinch-hitter, Johnny Bassler, went up to hit for Tigers pitcher Herman Pillette, who had pitched a fine game, allowing just seven hits and the two early runs. On Robertson’s 92nd pitch,9 Bassler’s pop fly settled in Mostil’s glove just as he passed the left-field foul line — and the Chicago pitcher had achieved perfection. A swarm of Detroit fans rushed to congratulate the lanky right-hander and carried him off the field, “an ovation that an athlete seldom is granted on a foreign field,” the Chicago Tribune reported.10
Robertson’s perfect game was the first in the major leagues since Hall of Famer Addie Joss pitched one in 1908. No pitcher would turn the trick again until Don Larsen in the World Series 34 years later.
Afterward, the Tigers still weren’t convinced about the legitimacy of Robertson’s achievement. Cobb held onto a few game balls that he claimed were discolored or smeared with a foreign substance, sending them to American League President Ban Johnson for further observation. A Detroit writer added fuel to the fire by stating, “It is a pity that such a magnificent game … should be tainted.”11 But Johnson immediately dismissed the Tigers’ complaints. “I consider Robertson one of the cleanest pitchers in organized baseball today,” he said.12
More than four decades later, Robertson’s teammate Eddie Mulligan — the White Sox shortstop was one of two players, along with center fielder Amos Strunk, who didn’t handle a single chance during the perfect game — accused his pitcher of hiding a pinch of rubber cement in the corner of his glove. “There was no tampering with the ball,” Mulligan insisted. “Robertson merely applied the cement to his first two fingers … this gave him an extra amount of backspin on the fastball.”13
Whether Robertson tampered with the ball remains a matter of conjecture, but one of the reasons the controversy won’t die is that he remains one of the unlikeliest pitchers to have thrown a perfect game. His 49-80 career record (a .380 winning percentage) over eight major-league seasons is the worst of any pitcher with a perfect game to his name.14 He retired to Fort Worth, Texas, and worked quietly as a pecan broker until Don Larsen brought him reluctantly back into the limelight in 1956. Tracked down by a reporter after the World Series, Robertson refused to pose for a photograph and said, “Just forget my name. It was long ago.”15
1 John Kieran, “Modest ‘No-Hit’ Robertson Gives Teammates Most Credit,” New York Tribune, May 14, 1922.
2 Bert Walker, “Tigers Protest Star Chisox Hurler,” Detroit Times, May 1, 1922; Scott Baillie, “Sly Charley Robertson Cemented Perfect Game Against Tigers,” Fresno Bee, June 28, 1964.
3 The 1929 Pirates are the other. They hit .303 as a team and were no-hit by Carl Hubbell of the New York Giants on May 8.
4 Associated Press, “Texan Recalls His ’22 Perfect Game,” Abilene Reporter-News, June 23, 1964.
5 Irving Vaughan, “Kid Robertson Flings Perfect Game for Sox,” Chicago Tribune, May 1, 1922.
6 “Sox Close First Series Here With Monday Game,” uncredited article from May 1, 1922, in Charlie Robertson player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.
7 The box score at Retrosheet.org, as of August 2015, claims that Mostil and Hooper each scored one run and each drove in one run, even though both White Sox runs came in the second inning. Unless they both hit home runs, this cannot be true. While RBIs were not listed in any box scores the next day, play-by-play accounts in various newspapers from May 1, including the Chicago Tribune and Rockford (Illinois) Republic, confirm that Mostil and Hooper scored on a ball hit by Earl Sheely that deflected off third baseman Bob Jones’s glove.
8 Edward Prell, “Thirty Years Ago Today: Sox Pitcher Was Perfect,” Chicago Tribune, April 30, 1952.
9 “Robertson Hero of Perfect Game,” Christian Science Monitor, May 1, 1922.
10 Vaughan, “Kid Robertson Flings Perfect Game for Sox.”
11 Walker, “Tigers Protest Chisox Hurler.”
12 “Absolves Pitcher of All Suspicion,” Spartanburg (South Carolina) Herald, May 3, 1922.
13 Baillie, “Sly Charley Robertson Cemented Perfect Game Against Tigers.”
14 As of 2015, six perfect-game pitchers had finished their careers with losing records: Robertson, Lee Richmond, Don Larsen, Len Barker, Dallas Braden, and Phil Humber. Humber was also a journeyman right-hander for the White Sox who threw an unlikely perfect game against the Seattle Mariners on April 21, 2012, and then won four more games the rest of his career. Humber’s 16 major-league wins are the fewest of any pitcher with a perfect game.
15 “Robertson Would Turn Down Game if He Had New Chance,” The Sporting News, October 17, 1956: 7.