fb-pixel Skip to main content
On Second Thought

Remembering Worcester’s long-ago history in the big leagues as baseball returns

A monument in honor of the first perfect game in major league history still stands not far from the new Polar Park in Worcester.
A monument in honor of the first perfect game in major league history still stands not far from the new Polar Park in Worcester.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The Worcester Red Sox officially unwrap Polar Park, their new gem of a ballyard with yesteryear touches, on Tuesday afternoon. Syracuse is in town for a six-game set.

It’s a big deal for the city of some 185,000, forever in the shadow of all things, sports and otherwise, related to the Hub of the Universe.

The locals sound eager to embrace their WooSox, stitch themselves into the cultural sports fabric that one day will have them boasting that they saw kids, predicted their fame and fortune, long before anyone else even guessed they’d make it to The Show.

Advertisement



A very long time ago, Worcester was The Show, with its own short-lived major league team, the Ruby Legs, and a southpaw hurler, J. Lee Richmond, whose exploits in the early 1880s still rank him among the game’s great iron arms.

A modest monument in Richmond’s honor still stands not too far from Polar Park, on the grounds of what was Driving Park, located then on the city’s sprawling Agricultural Fairgrounds. It was there, on the Saturday afternoon of June 12, 1880, that a 23-year-old Richmond fired the first perfect game in big league history.

The Baseball Hall of Fame has the 6-12-80 scorecard tucked away in its vast collection. Only 23 perfectos have been thrown in MLB history, and Richmond fired his in a season he went (hold on, this is not a typo) 32-32 and made 66 starts.

Again, that’s 66 starts. Richmond was both starter and closer, completing 57 of those starts. In fact, “closer” wasn’t part of the day’s discourse, and “opener” was used at a ballpark for bottled beer.

Richmond mowed through the requisite 27 batters, a feat so unique and splendid that the term “perfect game” had yet to become a hardball colloquialism. From a distance of 45 feet, the standard measurement of the day from mound to plate, he retired ‘em all with his assortment of confounding breaking balls (sinkers and risers) and deft changeup.

Advertisement



Final score: Worcester Ruby Legs 1, Cleveland Blues 0. The lone run came across when Cleveland’s Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap chopped up a ball around second base for a pair of errors.

One can only wonder how many perfect games would be thrown today — and how fast games would be played — if pitchers wound up from 45 feet instead of today’s 60 feet 6 inches. Baseball bumped the mound out to 50 feet the following year.

Richmond, an Ohio kid who was just days shy of graduating from Brown University, appeared to give up a hit in the fifth when Cleveland first baseman Bill Phillips smacked a ball between first and second. It was an alert Lon Knight, the Ruby Legs’ right fielder, who scooped up the roller and fired to first ahead of Phillips. Batter out, 9-3. Not many of those, in games perfect or otherwise, even in Little League.

Per John R. Husman of the Society for American Baseball Research, the umpire that day was Medford-born Foghorn Bradley, who had played the 1876 season for the Boston Red Caps.

Bradley’s given name was George, but boy, I say boy, what self-respecting ump would go by George rather than Foghorn?

Richmond, about to graduate, spent the night prior to his perfect game celebrating on the Brown campus with friends and teammates. He played both football and baseball, was the 1880 class president, and became Brown’s first athletic Hall of Fame inductee.

Advertisement



On the morning of June 12, after being up all night, Richmond first played a baseball game (start time: 4:50 a.m., per Husman) with classmates in Providence prior to turning in at approximately 6:30 a.m. After a brief snooze, he was up to catch the 11:30 train to Worcester, and by dusk authored the first perfect game in major league history.

Richmond’s 1880 season with Worcester was his busiest in the bigs. He essentially was the Ruby Legs’ (sometimes referred to as the Worcesters) pitching staff and rotation, which was the day’s industry norm. In the franchise’s three years of existence, his name was on 80 percent of its victories. In 1880, at only 5 feet 10 inches and 142 pounds, he piled up a total 590⅔ innings.

Today, a major league workhorse will log in the range of 220-240 innings. Washington’s Stephen Strasburg led the bigs with 209 innings pitched in 2019. The last guy to crack 300 innings was the Phillies’ Steve Carlton in 1980, a century after Richmond’s Ruby Leg motherlode.

Yet keep in mind, nine other pitchers, all of them working in the late 19th century, posted seasons with more innings pitched than Richmond’s 590⅔.

Will White, a western New Yorker, holds the all-time mark with 680 innings pitched in 1879. Known as “Whoop-La” White, he played 10 years for the National League’s Cincinnati Reds and piled up more than 450 innings in a half-dozen of those seasons.

Advertisement



The granite marker in Richmond’s name stands roughly waist high and is now located in a tidy, groomed courtyard of Becker College, maybe a mile’s stroll northwest of Polar Park.

It’s quiet at Becker these days. The school announced some six weeks ago that it is closing its doors for good, another small private college gone under. A Globe reporter’s voicemail message left with a school PR contact, inquiring about the future of the humble monument, went unanswered.

Richmond, who began studying to be a physician immediately after the 1880 season, played in only 15 more games after the Ruby Legs folded after the 1882 season. He became a doctor and later an educator, teaching chemistry for years in the Ohio public school system. His lifetime mark: 75-100, across 1,583 innings, all but 119 of those tossed in his three years with the Worcesters.

Game time Tuesday at Polar Park is 3:05 p.m., roughly the same time of day J. Lee Richmond was spinning history for the Ruby Legs, back long ago when Worcester was the bigs.


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.