Remembering Len Barker’s Perfect Game 5/15/81

May 15, 2023

Todd Hall

On May 15, 1981, the Cleveland Indians played host to the Toronto Blue Jays in a game that would go down in history. The game was played in less-than-ideal conditions, with a chilly temperature of 47 degrees at the first pitch and heavy rain throughout the game. Despite these challenges, Len Barker, the starting pitcher for the Indians, was able to pitch a perfect game. It was only the tenth perfect game in Major League Baseball history.

The game was not expected to be historic, with the Blue Jays struggling and the Indians sitting atop the American League’s East Division. Barker himself was more worried about his older brother flying in from Fort Lauderdale to watch the game than the game itself. Barker’s pitching coach, Dave Duncan, however, had an inkling that it could be a special night after watching Barker warm up in the bullpen.

Improbable – Barker was never a dominant pitcher.

Barker’s perfect game was particularly impressive because he was not considered to be one of the top pitchers in the league at the time. He had a respectable career up to that point, but he was not known for his dominant performances on the mound. In fact, Barker had never even thrown a no-hitter before his perfect game. But on that day in May, he was virtually untouchable.

He had an arsenal of pitches that he used to keep the Blue Jays batters off-balance throughout the game. His fastball was particularly effective, and he used it to great effect to get ahead in the count and keep hitters from making solid contact.

Of course, Barker’s perfect game was not just the result of his own individual efforts. He was also aided by his teammates on defense, who made a number of key plays throughout the game to keep the Blue Jays from getting on base. Third baseman Toby Harrah made a diving catch in the seventh inning to preserve the perfect game, and center fielder Rick Manning made a spectacular catch in the ninth inning to keep the game alive.


The celebration ensued. Len Barker had just thrown the 10th perfect game in major-league history. Catfish Hunter had been the last to record a perfect game, on May 8, 1968, against Minnesota. This was the second perfect game in the Cleveland team’s history. The first was thrown by Addie Joss on October 2, 1908, against Chicago. It was the first Indians no-hitter since Dennis Eckersley blanked California on May 30, 1977. As of the start of the 2016 season, Barker’s gem was the last no-hitter thrown by a Cleveland pitcher. “I knew that I had good stuff, maybe awesome stuff,” said Barker. “But I really didn’t start thinking about it until the last inning. My big pitch was my curveball. I had total command. I could throw anything, anywhere I wanted. And (catcher) Ron Hassey called a great game. Everybody was great. Hassey said, “Every time he goes out there with a good curveball, he’s got the chance for something like this. He was placing it right where I aimed it. I mean the ball was breaking so much that Toronto kept asking to see the ball. The Blue Jays were accepting and complimentary in defeat. “If you have to lose I’m glad to lose to a guy who pitched a perfect game to beat me,” said Toronto starter Luis Leal. “It is the first time in my life (24 years) that I’ve seen a perfect game. I never had it in my mind he would do it until he did it. I’m very happy for him. Pitcher Dave Stieb said, “I’m jealous. I wish I could have done it. Lenny Barker made it look easy (Stieb got a degree of revenge against Cleveland, pitching a no-hitter against the Indians on September 2, 1990, at Cleveland Stadium. It was the last no-hitter in the stadium’s history.

Barker’s mother, Emogene McCurry, was listening to the game from her home in Trevose, Pennsylvania. “The game kept fading in and out,” she said. “It came back in the eighth inning, but then we lost it in the ninth. Unlike Bill Elwell, Emogene did not leave her home in search of better reception. When Barker’s grandmother, Tokie Lockhart of Ona, West Virginia, heard the news, she remarked, “Tell Len I’m Proud. I hope he does better next time. “I thought we had him in the ninth,” Toronto pitcher Mark Bomback said. “He was so nervous. Then when they flashed the trivia question (on the center-field scoreboard), I was sure he was jinxed. The trivia question, which had been selected that morning? Which two teams had never been involved in a no-hitter? The answer? Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners.

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