Remembering the Reds’ No-No Miracle Worker

Robert Skead publishes a children’s novel to help keep Johnny Vander Meer and his unbreakable pitching record in the public eye.
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June is usually when baseball season starts humming, and it’s also the anniversary of Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer’s record-setting feat of back-to-back no-hit games. Known by teammates as “Vandy” and creator of what’s been called the Vander Meeracle, he was just 23 years old when he set the record on June 11 and 15, 1938. Baseball afficionados say it will never be topped, because to break his record someone would have to throw three consecutive no-hitters.

If you want to introduce young people in your life to this bit of Reds history, check out The Batboy and the Unbreakable Record, a children’s novel by Robert Skead, which reimagines the events of the summer of 1938 from the perspective of a 12-year-old batboy.

Robert Skead
Robert, you were asked by Johnny Vander Meer’s best friend Dick Jeffer to keep Vandy’s legacy alive. Can you tell us the story of how you met Jeffer and how his request impacted your life?

That’s a fun “story behind the story” and dear to my heart. I learned about Johnny Vander Meer in 1996, when I moved to Midland Park, New Jersey, where he grew up. 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, and that’s when my appreciation for the man truly began.

The display case didn’t have any Vandy baseball cards. I thought that was a shame and bought a few for the library to display. Sadly, only a year and a half after that event, Vander Meer died at the age of 82. The New York Times printed his obituary, which featured a photo of Johnny Vander Meer and Babe Ruth. I purchased that photo too for the library display case. Mr. Jeffer, Vandy’s boyhood best friend, saw the photo and asked the library how it got there. They put him in touch with me. I got a photo for him too, and we quickly became friends.

Before Mr. Jeffer died at the age of 96, he asked me to do everything I could to keep the memory of his friend—and the no-hitter record—alive. So I wrote a book about the event from a Reds batboys experience. I know it would have been his favorite book. I also created a website about Vandy.

What’s the most amazing aspect of Vander Meer’s record?

First, he was a 23-year-old rookie. The second no-hitter game at Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn was the first official Major League Baseball game ever played at night in New York City or anywhere outside Cincinnati, for that matter. The floodlights tinted the grass a surrealistic green. Official paid attendance was 38,748, one of the largest crowds ever to attend a game at Ebbets Field. It was standing room only.

But one of the coolest things is even the opposing Brooklyn Dodger fans started to cheer Vander Meer on in the seventh inning realizing they were witnessing baseball history. And just before the end, Vander Meer walked the bases loaded in the ninth but managed to get out of the jam.

Vandy’s mom and dad and 500 fans from Midland Park were there as well to watch every pitch—nervously, I’m sure. Also, before the game, a retired Babe Ruth, sporting a Reds cap, greeted Vandy in the dugout. After the game, the Babe said, “Nice going, kid.” The whole night reads like a Hollywood screenplay.

What was Johnny Vander Meer like as a person?

I met him just once on Johnny Vander Meer Day. He was kind, articulate, and humble. He never forgot his roots. He donated money to the local baseball program for scholarships in his name. He’d sign baseballs left for him when he got his haircut at the town barber shop. He donated funds from his autograph signings to help former major leaguers who needed help with health care needs.

He was a good man and a role model. It’s been an honor to help keep his memory alive.

In a way, his personal attributes also become part of the book’s story, as the batboy Richie Goodwin starts to look up to Vandy. He’s at kind of an odd moment in his own life. Can you describe Richie as a character?

Richie has a hard time making friends. He thinks his summer is ruined when his father gets hurt and can’t work, so Richie has to get a job. He ends up with his dream job, but then life gets hard. Everything falls apart. He’s been given good advice from his school principal, but putting it into action isn’t easy. But through his friendship with Vandy and the challenges of his new role, Richie overcomes obstacles and learns some valuable lessons.

Richie is complicated because he’s both a fierce and competent competitor and someone who experiences bullying. Why did you want to include bullying elements in the book, and what do you think parents should know about bullying that might surprise them?

I didn’t intentionally give the story a bullying theme. A story needs conflict to hold a reader’s interest. When I read my first draft back to myself, I was like, “Wow, there’s a how-to-handle-a-bully theme in here.”

Richie has to deal with his strong emotions and pain. As that happens, the reader discovers the proper things to do and say when faced with a bully. Since bullying is something so many young people encounter, I wanted this story to reinforce that life and relationships can get better when we diffuse situations correctly and speak up, stand up, and be kind.

Parents may not know that according to statistics by the National Bullying Prevention Center, one out of every five children has been bullied.

One of the things I loved about this book is how each chapter ended with a kind of cliff-hanger. I read it aloud to my own kids, age 13 and 11, and they kept begging for “one more chapter!” Can you talk a bit about structuring the story so that it would keep kids engaged?

Crafting those chapter endings so a reader wants to continue is what every author strives for. As I structure an engaging beginning, middle, and end, it all comes down to creating a character kids can relate to and care about, which means having shared experiences, heartache, and emotions.

I felt like the book kind of explored what it would feel like for dreams to come true—Richie’s greatest dream would be to work as a batboy, and then his greatest dream would be to travel with the team. It’s fun to watch Richie’s dreams come true and then see him grow in the process, and that reminds me of one of your favorite Johnny Vander Meer quotes.

He said, “Kids are always chasing rainbows, but baseball is a world where you can catch them.” The kid who loved baseball had his dream come true and caught his rainbow. I want readers to be inspired to pursue their own big dreams after reading the story.

Vandy also said, “Someone could tie the record. But I don’t think anyone will ever break it.” I agree.

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