In the 152-year history of major league baseball, only 23 pitchers have achieved perfection.
Neshaminy High School graduate Len Barker belongs to that elite fraternity.
Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of this incredible achievement and one which still resonates throughout the Bucks County baseball community.
Pitching for the Cleveland Indians against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday night, May 15, 1981, Barker faced 27 batters and not a single one reached base.
No runs, no hits, no errors, no walks. No baserunners, period.
Barker, now head baseball coach at Notre Dame College in Ohio, was a three-sport star for Neshaminy back in the early 1970s.
Armed with a blazing fastball but a little bit wild at times, Barker needed the better part of five years in the minor leagues – including stops in Sarasota, Gastonia, Pittsfield, Sacramento and Tucson before finally getting called up to the Texas Rangers in 1976.
He was traded to Cleveland in 1979 and that’s when his career began to take off. Barker just missed a 20-win season, finishing 19-12.
His 187 strikeouts led the American League in 1980 and, during the labor-shortened 1981 season also took the “K’’ title with 127.
It was during that campaign when Barker began to find command of his pitches and on that May 15 night, everything just seemed to fall into place. He joined baseball legends such as ex-Phillies great Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax and Don Larson.
Sticking it out through all those bus rides in the minor leagues finally paid off.
“I never once thought about giving it up,’’ Barker said to me during a phone call on Saturday morning, May 16, 1981. “I always believed I would make it. It was tough but it was a good experience. I remember making a buck-fifty a day for meal money. That makes me appreciate what I have now even more.’’
The Fort Knox, Kentucky native credited Sid Hudson, a Rangers pitching coach, for helping him with the transition from high school to pro baseball.
“I was always a pitcher,’’ Barker said. “Even in Little League. But this (working with Hudson) was the first time I realized what it meant to pitch.’’
After Barker’s trade to the Indians, pitching coach Dave Duncan (who later achieved great success with Tony LaRussa in Oakland and St. Louis), made a few more adjustments.
Duncan suggested a more deliberate pitching motion, with a high leg kick and more concentration on each pitch. Mix in the curveball. Develop a changeup.
“It helped quite a bit,’’ Barker said. “In spring training I did some experimenting and then went out and threw a nine-inning game against Seattle without giving up a walk.’’
So Barker became an integral part of the staff, which included Bert Blyleven, Rick Waits and John Denny.
On the night of the perfecto, Barker struck out 11 and kept his cool. However, his wife, Bonnie, had trouble keeping her’s.
“He’s flirted with a no-hitter before so I was trying not to get too excited,’’ she said. “I did start thinking about it in the sixth and seventh.’’
Len’s brother, Chuck, was sitting next to Bonnie and he was trying to hold it together, too.
“The amazing thing was this was the first time he ever saw Len win a game,’’ Bonnie said. “He just happened to be visiting over the weekend. It was just a regular kind of day, except it was raining. Len kept stalling, saying ‘I don’t want to go to the park and pitch through all the rain delays.’
“But finally it was getting late and he had to go.’’
The Indians scored a pair of runs in the first inning to take a little pressure off. Barker knew almost right away he was going to have a good night at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland.
“My big pitch all night was the curve,’’ he said in that post-game interview. He used the bender 40 times of the 57 pitches he threw after the fourth inning. “That’s a little unusual for me. But my fastball wasn’t all that good. I usually throw much harder (than 91 miles per hour).’’
The right-handed Barker, who was 25 when he threw the perfect game, still looked strong in the ninth inning.
“When we went out for the ninth inning, (centerfielder) Rick Manning slapped me on the leg and said, ‘go get ‘em!’+” Barker recalled.
When the last out was recorded by Manning, Barker had tossed the first perfect game since Oakland’s Jim “Catfish’’ Hunter on May 8, 1968.
At the time, Barker’s accomplishment drew enthusiastic praise from throughout Lower Bucks County baseball circles.
Bristol’s Pete Cimino, who pitched for the Minnesota Twins and California Angels, said maturity was a big factor in Barker’s progress. “Getting confidence,’’ Cimino said. “I’ve followed him since he was younger. He tried to overpower people at first. Somebody must have worked with him to control that fastball.’’
Barker was part of some strong teams at Neshaminy which included Rob Fromuth, Joe Sroba, Ed Riley, Bob Grupp, Mugsy Donahue and Steve Gale.
“I’ll bet the perfect game surprised him as much as anybody because of the way he used to pitch,’’ Fromuth said. “Len was always consistent but sometimes he was not effective as others. He did have the strength to throw it by people.’’
Barker’s perfect game was actually the second no-hitter tossed by a Neshaminy High School graduate.
Bill McCahan pitched one for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1947. Ironically, he came within one out of a perfect game.
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